Column By: NASCAR – LOUDON, NH – One year ago, Kevin Harvick held off a hard-charging Denny Hamlin at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in a battle that saw the two beat and bang through the final lap to end a 21-race winless streak for the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
There’s every reason to believe that fans could be treated to the same thrilling finish again this year between the two in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Harvick and Hamlin have been the cream of the crop in the NASCAR Cup Series this season, combining to win nine races – a series-leading five for Hamlin and four for Harvick – out of the 19 contested thus far. Hamlin won the most recent race at Kansas, while Harvick last visited Victory Lane in Indianapolis at the beginning of July.
Following the Kansas win, Hamlin reflected on the rivalry that has developed with Harvick over the past 12 months.
“What you’ve seen from us in the last year with the 11 and the 4 is a lot of mutual respect,” Hamlin said. “We race each other with a lot of mutual respect because we know it won’t be the last time. We still have probably many years of battles ahead of us. We’ve been around the sport a long time. We butted heads early in my career. He’s certainly a guy that I personally would like to model myself after.”
The duo is pretty evenly matched at New Hampshire in nearly every way on paper – Harvick leads all active drivers in wins at New Hampshire with four while Hamlin has three. Harvick is tied with Matt Kenseth for series-most top fives among active drivers with 12 each; Hamlin is right behind them with 10. And Hamlin leads the series in runner-up finishes at New Hampshire with five second-place results; including last year. Harvick has finished second or third a total of three times at the “Magic Mile.”
But while the spotlight will surely be on the two drivers who have dominated the season thus far, New Hampshire also puts the pressure on the postseason push for drivers on the bubble. With only seven races to go before NASCAR’s Playoffs begins, 10 drivers are locked into the postseason on wins, leaving six spots up for grabs.
Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto and William Byron are currently hanging on to the final three slots based on points, but their lead is precarious and they can be knocked out if a driver outside of the current Playoff 16 wins in an upcoming week. And seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, driving in his final full-time season, is 18 points to the bad outside the Playoff picture.
Of those battling on the Playoff bubble or sitting on the outside looking in, Johnson, Kenseth and Ryan Newman lead the group with three wins each in Loudon. Bowyer has two wins at New Hampshire.
And although they are both in a secure position in the points, brothers Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch are still looking for their first win of the year and each have three wins at New Hampshire.
Or could we see a first-time series winner this weekend? It has happened before. New Hampshire is home to five first-time Cup winners; including Joey Logano’s first series career victory in the June 2009 race in his rookie year.