Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LOUDON, NH – Only five races remain in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season to set the 16-driver Playoff lineup. And two drivers in particular – Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick – are hoping to finally celebrate in Victory Lane to put an exclamation point to their championship hopes.
Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is a track where both Harvick and Hamlin have strong winning records. And with a two-week off period approaching for the Summer Olympics, these veterans would like to break into the win column. Now.
Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski won at the New Hampshire mile in 2020 by a comfortable 1.647-second margin over Hamlin last year. In fact, Hamlin has finished second in the last two races, losing the trophy to Harvick by a slight .210-seconds in 2019.
Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has finished first or second in three of the last five races at New Hampshire, winning in 2017. Eleven of his 16 top-10 finishes are top fives. He has three victories (2007, 2012, 2017) and has led 754 laps; three times he’s led at least 100 laps in a race.
Harvick, driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has a similar New England resume. He’s a four-time winner, earning three trophies in just the last six races at the track. He’s finished top five in eight of the last 10 races, earning wins in 2016, 2018 and 2019. He’s led 765 laps in his career, once (2015) leading 216 of the race’s 300 laps, only to finish 21st.
Harvick’s four wins tie him with Jeff Burton for most at the track, so another trophy hoist would give him a second track (also Phoenix) where Harvick is the all-time winningest NASCAR Cup Series driver.
Certain a victory on Sunday would be a well-timed boost for Harvick or Hamlin with the Playoffs beginning on Sept. 5 at Darlington, S.C. As of now – without a win and relying solely on points position – Harvick is ranked 14th in the championship standings with 16 drivers earning Playoff slots.
Hamlin has led the championship points standings since the second race of the year, but now holds only a slim 10-point edge on four-race winner Kyle Larson for the regular season championship.
Hamlin, who has paced the title run in the standings, has 14 top-10 finishes – 11 of them top-five work. He has only a pair of top-10 finishes in the last five races, however, only three top-five finishes in the 12 races since his season best runner-up at Richmond, Va. on April 18.
Harvick is in the midst of a very unusual season. He has 14 top-10 finishes in the opening 21 races, but has led only 39 laps. Compare that to last season, for example, when he led 1,531 laps and won a series-best nine races. The last time Harvick led less than 100 laps through the opening 21 races was 2013 when he led 36 laps and had wins at Richmond, Va. and Charlotte in that span.
Harvick is the only driver among the four Stewart-Haas Racing teammates currently in a Playoff position, so a lot is riding on the team’s summer push.
“New Hampshire has been really good to us and I think [crew chief] Rodney Childers and I probably feel like we should have – could have – won them all,” Harvick said. “It’s been a racetrack that has been really good for us from a performance standpoint. And from a confidence standpoint, being able to adjust on the car and know what we’re looking for, I think this is definitely a racetrack where a lot of those things come into play and we used a lot of the same things that we’ve used in the past as far as tools of how we make our car go around the corner.
“It’s been a great race track for us.”
Seven current drivers have New Hampshire wins and all are multi-time winners. Harvick leads with four wins. Kurt and Kyle Busch – who finished 1-2 last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway – have three wins each, as does Hamlin and Ryan Newman. Keselowski and Team Penske teammate Joey Logano are both two-time winners.
As the series prepares for the final Playoff push in August, Richard Childress Racing drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon sit in the 15th and 16th positions (above the eligibility line). Chris Buescher and Matt DiBenedetto are next in the rankings (-96 and -138 points), respectively – from the Playoff group.
XFINITY SERIES GETS BACK TO THE MAGIC MILE
The NASCAR Xfinity Series returns to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the first time since 2019 with Saturday’s Ambetter Get Vaccinated 200 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Last week’s race runner-up Jeb Burton will start on the pole, but he – and the field – can expect to deal with a former race winner, Christopher Bell when it comes to the finish. Bell will drive the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota going for a third consecutive victory on the New Hampshire mile. His last win in 2019 was by more than 4-seconds.
Bell also won the last NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race (2017) at the track. A win in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race would give him wins in all three NASCAR national series at the track – something only Kyle Busch has done.
There is plenty of “extra” motivation this week for drivers to perform well in this series.
Xfinity Series championship leader Austin Cindric and Playoff-bound Harrison Burton would love to celebrate a big week in their careers. Both young drivers announced Thursday their rides for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year run. Cindric will drive the Team Penske No. 2 Ford and Burton will drive the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.
The defending series champion Cindric – a four-race winner in 2021 – has led the standings since earning the ‘W’ in the opening race of the year at Daytona. Burton, who won four races last season, is still looking to get his first of this season.
Daniel Hemric, who is ranked fourth in the championship, continues his quest for that first major NASCAR winner’s trophy. A long-time fan favorite, Hemric looked to have finally scored his first race win last week at Atlanta.
Unfortunately, it was a dramatic ending for the wrong reasons. Hemric’s teammate Kyle Busch pushed him from behind on the final restart to get the pair out front, only instead of pulling out front, the nudge ended up putting Hemric into the wall and he finished 30th.
Another highly-motivated driver, Josh Berry, gets a chance to race for another win. Berry will drive the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet for Michael Annett, who is recovering from leg surgery. Berry leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. He competed for JR Motorsports in 13 of his 15 series starts this season, winning his first race at Martinsville, Va. on April 11.
Joe Gibbs Racing team has won the last five New Hampshire races. Bell is the only former winner in the field.
Eight races still remain to set the Playoff dozen. Annett and Jeremy Clements are 11th and 12th in the standings with a 59 and 54-point buffer on the field. Riley Herbst and Brandon Brown are 13th and 14th, respectively.