The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ first Sunday race since Sonoma in late June took place at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, site of the Overton’s 301. The race was a Toyota-dominated event, with the likes of Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dominating the event, but it was fellow Toyota driver Denny Hamlin who was victorious.
Leading into the weekend, headlines were aplenty. Aric Almirola made his return to Cup racing after missing the last seven races for a back injury, driving the #43 for the first time since May’s Kansas race. To improve the racing at Loudon, track officials added a PJ1 compound to the bottom groove next to the yellow line separating the track from the apron; the lane is not considered the primary racing line, with NASCAR hoping the resin would increase the likelihood of drivers using it, creating more action. The material had already been used at Bristol and Charlotte.
Kyle Larson, who finished 2nd in last Saturday’s Kentucky race, lost his points lead to race winner Truex after he was penalized 35 points following a penalty for an improper rear brake cooling assembly. Crew chief Chad Johnston was also suspended for three races, with team manager/competition director Tony Lunders taking his place. Larson rebounded by winning the pole for the Loudon race, but his celebration was short-lived as he was once again discovered to have an unapproved rear deck fin lid, forcing him to the rear of the field and surrendering the 1st-place starting position to Truex.
Truex started the race alongside Jimmie Johnson, though the seven-time champion quickly saw his position drop as he was caught jumping the start; he took a pass-through penalty and fell to the back. Meanwhile, Larson began to move through the field; by lap 32, he had entered the top-10. Truex led until the first competition caution on lap 36.
The green flag waved on lap 40, though it lasted for just a lap; Erik Jones, who had made contact with Kasey Kahne as he exited his pit box, blew a left-front tire and hit the turn three wall. The restart came on lap 47. 20 laps later, a caution came for Cole Whitt, who blew his engine for the third consecutive race. The next restart took place with two laps to go in the stage, as Truex went on to continue his domination, winning his series-leading 14th stage. Behind him were Matt Kenseth, Larson, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Kahne, Ryan Newman, Ryan Blaney, Hamlin and Chase Elliott.
Kyle Busch, who had pitted during an earlier caution, became the leader when Truex pitted between stages. On lap 79, as the race was still under caution, NASCAR summoned track officials to repair a hole on the track, which necessitated red flag conditions. Ten minutes later, the red flag switched to yellow, with Stage #2 beginning on lap 84; Busch and Blaney were on the front row, while Truex dropped to 20th.
On lap 89, Austin Dillon was hit by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in turn four, causing him to spin in front of A.J. Allmendinger. Allmendinger, Kenseth and Larson nearly collided with the #3, but were able to avoid him.
Another restart took place on lap 93, with Busch still the leader. By lap 118, teams began to report that the PJ1 compound had worn off the track. Busch led for the entirety of the stage to win. Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Johnson, Truex, Kenseth, Blaney, Larson and Clint Bowyer followed. Hamlin and Harvick led the race off pit road, though Kyle Busch lost three spots on pit road after having to jack the car twice on the right side.
The final stage commenced on lap 158. Hamlin led the first lap, while Truex – who restarted 3rd – quickly caught up to the #11 before dropping past Busch into 3rd. On lap 218, Truex and Daniel Suárez began making stops under green; for Truex, the stop was necessary as he had a flat right-front tire, forcing him to go a lap down before unlapping himself eleven laps later. Other leaders began their stops on lap 236, though Busch suffered a speeding penalty in the process, his fourth of the season (after Las Vegas, Richmond and Sonoma).
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had not pitted yet, inherited the lead from Busch. Earnhardt pitted on lap 247, allowing Truex to take 1st. Kenseth passed Truex on the inside of turn four for the lead on lap 260; behind the two and on the other side of the backstretch, Newman spun; while he kept it off the wall, the spin led to a yellow flag. Busch was eventually penalized again for speeding. During stops, Kenseth elected to take two tires, while the rest of the field took four.
Earnhardt stayed out for the restart with 35 laps to go, comprising the front row alongside Kenseth. After a slow restart by Kenseth, he moved ahead to take the lead, though Hamlin took it back a lap later. Hamlin would go on to lead the final 34 laps to win his and JGR’s first races of the 2017 season, snapping 28- and 21-race winless streaks, respectively. For the second consecutive week, Larson engineered a last-to-2nd drive. Truex and Kenseth finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, while Harvick took 5th. Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Johnson rounded out the top-10.
“It’s a great feeling, I know we’ve been getting better and better as the year goes on,” Hamlin stated. “Definitely needed a win for the organization, for myself and just get some momentum going (with the playoffs coming up), so we gotta get going.”
Next week, the Cup Series travels to the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400. Kyle Busch is the defending winner.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @ToyotaRacing