NASCAR’s first of two trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this year is now history, following Denny Hamlin’s triumph over Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. in the Overton’s 301 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
And as they like to say in New England, it was a wicked piss-ah of a race. It was a huge victory for Hamlin, his first of the year and the first for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, Hamlin is assured of making it to NASCAR’s playoffs.
Here are six takeaways from the first race of the second half of the Cup season.
It was a Toyotathon
From the drop of the green flag, the Toyota contingent crushed the field. In Stage 1, Martin Truex Jr. led every lap in his Furniture Row Racing Toyota. In Stage 2, Kyle Busch led every green-flag lap in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
In Stage 3, Hamlin started out with the lead in his JGR Toyota after Busch had a poor pit stop. Soon, it was Truex back out front again, at least until around Lap 220, when a flat right-front tire forced him to pit and hand the lead back to Busch.
Busch’s golden opportunity to win slipped through his fingers on Lap 239, when he was caught speeding on pit road. After pit stops cycled through, Truex was back out front, until Lap 261, when Matt Kenseth passed him.
Finally, after another caution, Matt Kenseth took two tires and got passed by teammate Denny Hamlin for the win with 34 laps to go. All told, Toyotas led 290 of 301 laps.
Setting the stage
Truex has just crushed this stage racing, winning Stage 1 at New Hampshire. Truex and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing have been tremendous all year long, and with all the playoff points Truex has now — after New Hampshire, the number is 29 — is going to make him awfully hard to beat come playoff time.
Easier to lose than to win
Kyle Busch’s winless streak is now officially one year long. Busch won the second stage and had a car fast enough to win. Busch’s chances at victory went out the window when he got caught being too fast on pit road twice in a row late in the race.
By the same token, on the last caution Dale Earnhardt Jr. gambled and stayed out, eschewing fresh rubber, while every other lead-lap car pitted. Junior briefly led but dropped like a stone through the field. Nice try, but it didn’t work.
Team Penske won three of the first nine races of the season, but since then the team has fallen back in the pack. Brad Keselowski was never a factor at New Hampshire all weekend, while rear suspension issues sent Joey Logano to the garage and another hugely disappointing finish. Now, Logano is facing the very real possibility of missing the playoffs altogether, which would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. The fact that Hamlin was a first-time winner this season hurts Logano’s chances all that much more.
Kyle Larson had to start at the back of the grid after his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet flunked post-qualifying inspection on Friday. He went from 39th to 15th in the first 16 laps, which is nothing short of remarkable. By Lap 24, he was all the way up to 11th, advancing to fifth in the first 50 laps. That said, Larson was not available to steal the race from the dominant Toyotas and had to settle for second place, his seventh of the season. Still, this driver, this car, this team, have it going on.
Seven-time just so-so
Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion inexplicably jumped the start, but by the end of Stage 1, he was back up to the top five, although he had nothing for the race-dominating Toyotas and wound up barely cracking the top 10. No matter how I look at the upcoming championship battle, it keeps coming up the same way — Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson are in one class, and everyone else is playing catch-up.