On the early morning of July 18th, NASCAR was more than ready to race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but mother nature just couldn’t let things go so easily for them. Rain loomed over the track in the early morning but seemed to come to a halt just in time for the start of the race, however, mother nature was only beginning to play tricks.
After finishing second to his big brother Kurt, Kyle Busch looked to make up for last week’s loss by starting on the pole alongside his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. And as for last week’s Atlanta race winner, Kurt Busch, he’d share row two with most popular driver Chase Elliott (also just coming off a win himself in Saturday night’s SRX race at Nashville Fairgrounds). Brad Keselowski, the last winner at the famed New Hampshire Motor Speedway would begin the race in 11th and previous winners (still searching for a win this season) Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, would begin the race in 6th and 12th.
The green flag dropped at 3:18 P.M. and Kyle Busch quickly took over the lead from teammate Truex Jr. as a light mist began to dance over the track. Although racing was intense in the early laps, driver’s radios lit up with complaints of the racing surface being wet. Unfortunately, before NASCAR could make any sort of call about the growing precipitation, disaster struck as the JGR drivers at the front of the field began to go around. The #18 pounded the outside while the #19 received front-end damage and the #11 went for a spin. Race control quickly called the caution, as the rain only continued to pour heavier onto the racing surface and soon called the drivers to pit road, simultaneously displaying the red flag. Kyle Busch was more than unhappy with NASCAR for not making a call sooner about the light rain, showing his displeasure by giving a love tap to the pace car. When interviewed on pit road by NBCSN’s Marty Snider, Busch said, “Started under a mist, never should have started to begin with.” As a result of the early race incident, Busch was done for the day. His teammates, Hamlin and Truex Jr., were able to repair their damage and continue the race.
After a lengthy wait, NASCAR lifted the red flag and displayed the yellow flag. Joey Logano quickly made his way down pit road to remove a piece of debris from inside the car. However, NASCAR would hold Logano for two laps, not only for entering pit road when it wasn’t open, but also because a pit crew member had worked on the car under the red flag condition (a direct violation of the NASCAR rule book). The competition caution was originally set to take place at lap 30, but due to the lengthy red flag, NASCAR made the choice to have it on lap 20. The green flag finally came out again on lap 23 with Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch on the front row. Elliott was able to pull forward and take the lead but it didn’t take long for Busch to quickly take it away, as Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman attempted to make it three wide, in an effort to gain the lead. Bowman’s efforts failed, but his move did open the door for Christopher Bell to battle against Elliott and Busch for the lead, but the lead would ultimately fall to Elliott. At lap 33 the caution flag flew after Anthony Alfredo went for a spin, collecting minor damage. Pit road opened and the leaders stayed out.
When the green flag came back out, Elliott was able to quickly reclaim and maintain his lead, with Christopher Bell and Ryan Blaney not far behind in second and third. Around lap 61, Ryan Blaney was all over the back bumper of Chase Elliott, the two battling back and forth for the lead. In the end, Blaney would take the lead away from Elliott and would be able to not only hold off Elliott for the stage win, but also Christopher Bell, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Tyler Reddick. Pit stops would not fair well for the stage one winner though, as Ryan Blaney would lose six spots after a problem with the lug nut gun. Blaney’s troubles would allow Kevin Harvick to be the first out of the pits, followed by Hamlin in second and Reddick in third.
Stage two began at lap 82 with Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin on the front row, still both hungrily searching for a win this season. On the restart, Harvick was able to capture the lead as Hamlin spun his tires, falling back to fourth. Despite some pressure from behind from Elliott and Reddick, Harvick would ultimately be the one to hold on to the lead. On lap 88, Harvick’s teammate Chase Briscoe was spotted slowly moving along the apron, apparently facing a sensory issue, but it was quickly able to fix itself. Racing remained intense and largely uneventful until Quin Houff made contact with the wall on lap 128, perhaps thanks to a little help from driver #6 Ryan Newman. The caution flag flew and pit stops were underway. For stage one winner Ryan Blaney, pit road continued to be a struggle as he lost 4 spots, but for leader Kevin Harvick, it was a pleasure cruise as he managed to escape pit road first, with Hamlin and Keselowski following behind him.
On the restart, Harvick was able to gain back and maintain his lead. Hamlin sat in second with Keselowski not too far behind in 3rd. Throughout the pack, racing was intense as reigning champ Chase Elliott and the largely unheard of this season Aric Almirola bumped and banged for position. The caution flag flew once again at lap 139, as Bubba Wallace became loose from contact with Daniel Suárez and spun into the #17 of Chris Buescher. At the restart, Harvick took back his lead and racing remained largely uneventful. Almirola continued to have a solid run, racing into the fifth position by lap 176, and Brad Keselowski got around Harvick for the lead to become the winner of stage two.
Pit stops began and finished just the way they’d started, with Keselowski, Harvick, and Blaney in first, second, and third. Denny Hamlin, however, suffered a devastating blow as he had to come back down pit road due to a lug nut getting trapped in the tire hub. The final stage got underway with Harvick pushing Keselowski to the lead, but Blaney was able to stay right beside the two, settling for second as Harvick fell back to third. Racing grew intense among the leaders as darkness threatened to shorten the race, (due to the red flag condition taking away time from the race and New Hampshire Motor Speedway not having lights). Penske teammates Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski battled hard, back and forth for the lead (even nearly taking one another out). Meanwhile, as the #2 and #12 battled hard at the front of the field, Aric Almirola was able to catch up to the two leaders and give them a run for their money. Eventually, he was able to get around Keselowski, and shortly enough he’d get around Blaney too. In the end, Almirola’s car was just too fast for anyone to beat, even after green flag pit stops, he was still the car to beat.
Thanks to an absolutely dominant car and NASCAR shortening the race because of the looming dark skies, Aric Almirola took the checkered flag earning his first win this season and locking himself into the playoffs. Christopher Bell, Saturday’s Xfinity Series race winner, would finish in second, and last season’s winner at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski, would finish in third. Coming back from his two lap penalty, Joey Logano would finish in fourth, and stage one winner Ryan Blaney would finish in fifth. Almirola, would clear tech without any issues and officially be declared the winner. Tech showed no other issues except a few lug nut infractions from a handful of drivers (monetary fines to their crew chiefs). The NASCAR Cup Series will return two weeks from now after the conclusion of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, on August 8th at Watkins Glen International at 3 P.M. EST on NBCSN.
Featured image from @nascaronfox on Instagram.