New Hampshire Motor Speedway will mark the 22nd race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season with this weekend’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301. It’s a track where three drivers have combined to win five of the last six races: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
At this time a year ago, that trio sat 1-2-3 in the Cup standings, winning 13 of 21 races while mastering a minefield of COVID-19 complications. Harvick went on to win a career-high nine times, cruising to the regular-season points title while Hamlin posted seven victories of his own. Keselowski won four times and came 2.74 seconds short of a second Cup title, finishing runner-up to Chase Elliott at Phoenix Raceway.
How quickly momentum can shift in this sport.
Here we are, 12 months later, and that trio has won a grand total of once, at Talladega Superspeedway with Keselowski. Harvick is suffering through his worst season since switching to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014, on pace for a career low in laps led (39) while slumping to ninth in the point standings. A man who made five of the first six Championship 4s under NASCAR’s current playoff format could potentially miss the postseason altogether with three upsets down the stretch.
Hamlin is also winless, weakening as the year has progressed. The current point leader came out of the box swinging, posting eight top-5 finishes in the first nine races. But never closing the deal eventually took a hit to the No. 11 Toyota team’s confidence. Hamlin’s led just 76 laps the past dozen races while watching his advantage shrink from over 100 points to just 10 over Kyle Larson.
Keselowski is in a trickier spot, announcing next week he’ll be leaving Team Penske to become part-owner of Roush Fenway Racing in 2022. The No. 2 team has been Penske’s flagship for decades but now must deal with the pending distraction of transitioning to a new driver in Austin Cindric. Can this veteran keep the team motivated, making one last push after posting only one top-5 finish over the past 10 races?
New Hampshire comes at a good time for this group, a unique one-mile oval in the final regular-season stretch. The track shares a few characteristics with Phoenix, the championship finale but otherwise has limited use as a testing ground for playoff-bound drivers. The sport’s hottest team, Hendrick Motorsports, has struggled at this place through the years; the last HMS driver to win New Hampshire was Kasey Kahne way back in 2012.
We’ve just seen another struggling driver, Kurt Busch, complete a recent turnaround with an upset at Atlanta Motor Speedway. New Hampshire has the potential to occasionally surprise, gifting Joey Logano his first win as a rookie in 2009 and Brian Vickers his final Cup victory four years later.
So for Hamlin, Harvick, Keselowski and other drivers on the playoff bubble, the time to strike is now. Looking ahead past the two-week Olympic break, two of the final four regular-season races are on road courses, where Chase Elliott has dominated. Michigan International Speedway plays right into Kyle Larson’s wheelhouse. And placing your bet on the Daytona International Speedway finale is like throwing all your money on one number of the roulette wheel. It’s just too unpredictable.
We’ll see if New Hampshire is where old favorites come back to make new memories.
Foxwoods Resort Casino 301
Date: Sunday, July 18
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Loudon, N.H.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kurt Busch
Kurt put together a masterful Atlanta performance, leading 144 of 260 laps and beating younger brother Kyle to the checkered flag. A little help from teammate Ross Chastain gave Kurt the low line to make the winning move, putting Chip Ganassi in victory lane just two weeks after announcing they’ll be sold to Trackhouse Racing for 2022.
For Busch, it was the most laps led for him in any race since 2015. He’s now won a Cup race in eight straight seasons while making the playoffs 12 times in the last 13 years. Not a bad resume to sell to perspective employers as rumors swirl about where Busch will end up in 2022.
Who’s at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
JTG Daugherty Racing has to be kicking themselves over what might have been. Stenhouse produced their most consistent season over the first half of 2021, leaving them on the fringes of playoff contention through 15 races. Since then, it’s been three DNFs over his last six starts (two engine failures and a crash not of his making at Atlanta) to leave him a distant 21st in the standings.
Unless there’s a Daytona miracle here, it’s hard to see Stenhouse on the right side of the cutline at this point. What does that mean for his employment with JTG Daugherty come 2022?
Austin Cindric was officially chosen as the driver of Team Penske’s No. 2 Ford next season. Cindric had been previously tied to the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford but was shuffled over when Brad Keselowski chose to leave the Penske organization. “Getting to drive for Mr. Roger Penske has been a tremendous opportunity,” Keselowski said in a statement. “I am so proud of the success we had together. His guidance has helped me both be a better competitor, but even more so, a better man.” Keselowski’s move to RFR will be made official this Tuesday.
Harrison Burton will move up from the NASCAR Xfinity Series next season, taking Cindric’s spot with the No. 21 Ford. Burton said it was “hard to say no” to an organization that has 99 Cup wins all-time. In the process, he’ll leave a spot at Joe Gibbs Racing open at NXS that will likely be filled by Ty Gibbs.
The shuffling leaves current Wood Brothers driver Matt DiBenedetto a free agent. DiBenedetto has driven for the Woods since 2019 but has struggled this season, resulting in the firing of crew chief Greg Erwin as he sits 18th in the current Cup playoff standings, some 138 points behind Tyler Reddick for the final spot.
Chase Elliott will pull a NASCAR-SRX crossover this weekend when he races father Bill for just the second time in his career. The duo will lead a star-studded field for the finale of the six-race series at the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway Saturday night on CBS (8 p.m. ET). Tony Stewart currently leads the championship standings over seven-time Trans-Am champion Ernie Francis, Jr.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The longest current active streak (in years) for a driver who’s won at least one Cup race a season. Kyle Busch has won every year from 2005-2021, leaving him one short of the record held by Richard Petty (18, 1960-1977).
Lead changes at Atlanta Sunday, the second fewest for the track since it was reconfigured during the 1997 season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Are you willing to put your faith in Kevin Harvick? Three of his four career wins at New Hampshire have come in the last six races here. He’s got 63 laps led in his last three NHMS starts and a 12th-place starting spot should lead to solid position differential points. Even a top-5 finish would be good enough to have him on the roster.
Points leader Denny Hamlin has posted nine straight top-15 finishes at New Hampshire while winning here in July 2017. The last two NHMS races, he’s led 205 laps, racking up the bonus points while producing plenty of fastest lap bonuses for DraftKings and other daily fantasy formats. Hard to go wrong with the No. 11 as a steady pick atop your list.
Tyler Reddick has been heating up, posting three straight top-10 finishes to build a cushion on the NASCAR playoff bubble. A 10th-place finish at Loudon last season is a great foundation to build on as the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet team hopes to win before the year is out.
Once again, Matt DiBenedetto is racing for his future after the shakeup within Ford and Team Penske this week. New Hampshire is the perfect place to rebuild the resume with two straight top-6 finishes, notching them with different teams (now-defunct Leavine Family Racing and the Wood Brothers). A top-10 finish last week shows potential Matty D and his new crew chief, Jonathan Hassler, could finish the year out strong.
Cole Custer has been invisible throughout most of the 2021 Cup season. New Hampshire might be the perfect remedy for this sophomore slump, a track where he posted an eighth-place run as a rookie with Stewart-Haas Racing.
Quietly, Michael McDowell posted back-to-back top-20 finishes with Front Row Motorsports here during difficult seasons in 2019 and 2020. Expect him to be far better this time around while lifting the FRM team to new heights since that surprising Daytona 500 win.
What Vegas Thinks
Despite no career wins at New Hampshire, Kyle Larson has 4/1 odds to win this weekend according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Busch sits second at 6/1 followed by Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. at 8/1.
In the longshot category, Tyler Reddick sits at 50/1 if you think he could get over the hump and earn his first Cup win.
What I Think
I think it’s hard for a driver as talented as Kevin Harvick to go the entire year without a Cup victory. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to be at a place like New Hampshire, even with the difficult year he’s had.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.