With two wins in his pocket heading into Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski was already in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, but it was this third win of 2020 that came in the sort of dominating style the championship contender hoped would show his team’s readiness to challenge for the season title.
Keselowski, 36, led a race best 184 of the 301 laps around the “Magic Mile” and held off runner-up Denny Hamlin by 1.647-seconds to hoist his 33rd career NASCAR Cup Series trophy and mark the fifth consecutive season he’s had at least three wins.
“We’ve had a lot of great races this year with the 2-car, but we just hadn’t really gone out and dominated a race, you know,” Keselowski said. “I was talking with (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins and we were like maybe that’s what we need to get to the next level. We’re right there. We need to just go and dominate a race and that’s what today was for us.
“I’m really proud of my team and the effort they gave today and great race car. Thank you.”
Although Keselowski’s No. 2 Team Penske Ford certainly topped all the important statistics, Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota kept him honest for most of the day. The two accounted for 18 of the race’s 23 lead changes, with Keselowski ultimately passing Hamlin and holding the point for the race’s final 81 caution-free laps.
“We just kind of were second there to the two (Keselowski),” the five-race winner Hamlin conceded. “We could really do well on restarts and we were going back-and-forth. Wow, that was some really, really good short track racing there. Hopefully, the fans liked what they saw there with me and the two (Keselowski) for most of the day.
“Some great side-by-side racing. We treated each other fair and it’s good that we got one-two out of it.”
Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. finished third, followed by Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano and the season’s championship leader Kevin Harvick. Matt DiBenedetto, Aric Almirola, rookie Cole Custer, Chase Elliott and rookie Tyler Reddick rounded out the top 10.
It marked Almirola’s series-best ninth consecutive top-10 finish. And it was the second time in the last four races that at least two rookies finished inside the top 10.
Harvick’s fifth-place finish was good enough to hold onto an 81-point advantage over second place Keselowski in the series driver standings.
Jimmie Johnson finished 12th to keep his playoff hopes alive in the seven-time champion’s final full-time season in the series. The result represented a huge rally on the day for Johnson, who was involved in an incident with Clint Bowyer early in the race. He crept closer to the all-important top 16 in the standings that will represent the playoff field.
Johnson trails 16th place William Byron — his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, by 25 points. Reddick is 15 points behind Byron with only six races remaining to decide the playoff challengers.
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch suffered more bad luck in what’s been a frustrating season for his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team. Busch’s car had a tire go down only 15 laps into the race — while he was running among the top five – and it put his car hard into the wall.
Busch has three runner-up finishes (at Fontana, Atlanta and Darlington) this season but hasn’t won a race since his championship-clinching victory in the 2019 season finale at Homestead. He arrived in New Hampshire ranked ninth, but his last-place finish (one of four finishes of 30th or worse) leaves him ranked 10th in the standings.
“Way too early in the going for anything to be wrong or even to build enough brake temp or brake heat,” a clearly disappointed Busch said. “I don’t know. Just hate it for our Pedigree team and the fight that we’ve been having this year seems to be continuing.”
The series moves to the two-mile Michigan Speedway for a Saturday-Sunday double-header next weekend.
Note: The Nos. 2, 8 and 19 all had one lug nut not safe and secure in post-race inspection. The No. 14 had two lug nuts not safe and secure. NASCAR will announce fines and penalties later in the week.