Keselowski sweeps New Hampshire, dominates
Flag to flag: Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 seemed to be Brad Keselowski's to lose all weekend. The No. 2 Redd's Ford was on a rail and in Victory Lane both in Saturday's Nationwide Series and the following Sprint Cup race. He started the Cup race in 7th and methodically drove to the front during the first run of the race. He took the lead briefly during the first green flag pit stops on lap 74 and then in sequence on lap 90.
The rest of Keselowski's day would involve driving from the back of the top 10 and to the front, as crew chief Paul Wolfe often called for the 2 crew to bolt four tires on, while other drivers gained spots by taking two. Keselowski was cruising to the win when Justin Allgaier (37th) crashed just in front of the race leader with two laps to go. This brought forth a green-white-checkered finish with Keselowski in front of Jeff Gordon (26th), Denny Hamlin (8th), and Kevin Harvick (30th). Those three drivers stayed out and gained track position on the last pit stops during the lap 250 debris caution, in hopes of stretching their fuel to the end. That strategy backfired for Gordon, who ran out of fuel during the caution laps, and Harvick, whose car started gasping for fuel and off the pace on the lap 304 restart. The extra laps didn't help Hamlin either, as he dropped spots near the race's end, while he saved fuel. The two other Joe Gibbs Racing cars were strong through the day, with Kyle Busch's track record-breaking time giving him the top spot, from which he led the first 62 laps. He then ceded that spot to teammate Hamlin, who ended up leading 20 laps total in the race.
Matt Kenseth (4th) led 12 laps and had another solid run that again bolsters his chances of making the Chase on points, if he doesn't win a race. Rookie Kyle Larson also got back into Chase contention, notching 3rd in the race (tied for 2nd-best of his career) and leading 12 laps after staying out and taking the lead during a pit sequence. Larson had some terrible luck the three races before, but gained some positions in the points to now be tied for 14th in the standings with fellow rookie Austin Dillon (14th). If the Chase started next race, Larson would make it because he has a higher best finish than Dillon. Clint Bowyer (6th) took two tires after a late pit stop and took the lead for a while, leading 36 laps total in the race and notching his 8th top 10 in 19 2014 races. Goodyear's left-rear tires had been a topic of discussion all weekend, as those tires being cut had caused both Joey Logano (40th) and Aric Almirola (23rd) to crash in practice. That problem reared its head early and conspicuously for Jimmie Johnson (42nd), who had a tire go down on lap 6 and pitted under green. Just nine laps later, Johnson's tire popped and sent the No. 48 into the wall. Afterwards, Johnson was clear to say that he didn't believe aggressively low air pressures, thought to be the culprit for the other failures of the weekend, were the cause for his problems.
Later in the race, 72-year-old Morgan Shepherd (39th) was many laps down in the No. 33 Circle Sport Racing Chevy and as 2nd-place Joey Logano passed him on the high side, Shepherd lost the handle and knocked Logano into the wall and out of the race. That generated a barrage of criticism from fans and drivers - more on this later. Despite some good racing through the pack, it never slowed down Keselowski, who drove to his 3rd win of the season, which puts him ahead of Johnson atop the Chase standings, as Keselowski is now 3rd in points to Johnson's 5th. Both Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10th) have clinched spots in the Chase, as they now can no longer fall outside the top 30 in points - all they have to do is attempt the rest of the races. The top 10 New Hampshire finishers are Keselowski, Ky. Busch (3rd-straight runner-up at NHMS), Larson, Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Hamlin, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth (4th in points), Newman (7th), Bowyer (10th), Paul Menard (11th), and Larson (tied for 14th) would be the five winless drivers to make the Chase on points. Aric Almirola (22nd) and Kurt Busch (25th) are the two drivers with wins, who are outside the top 16 in points. Greg Biffle (15th at NHMS, 16th in points) has fallen out of the Chase threshold. This race was TNT's last of the season and ends a 32-year run of Turner Sports covering NASCAR. Seeing the TNT crew signing off was sentimental for sure, especially when they brought on Ken Squier, who was the lead booth announcer for NASCAR races on TBS, to offer a few closing remarks.
RaceTweet: Keselowski dominates at New Hampshire Saturday and Sunday, clinches Chase spot. Morgan Shepherd won't be at the Penske Christmas party.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Brad Keselowski - Fast in practice, fast on race day. Keselowski and the No. 2 team completed the follow-through, leading the most laps and making the right strategy calls to score the win. Keselowski's win Saturday made for the first sweep ever for a driver at New Hampshire. Keselowski was also the 13th different winner in the last 13 NHMS races and scored the 4th-straight win for Ford in the Sprint Cup Series.
North Korean Missile Dud of the Race: Jimmie Johnson - Normally strong anywhere, Johnson's two cut left rear tires ended the No. 48 team's day after 15 laps. Many predicted those tires would be an issue, but no one had them taking Johnson out so early. Despite his comments, the aggressive setups teams are running were likely the cause for the problems this weekend and Johnson has had tire issues before this season.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - Much like Larson, Stenhouse Jr. has had some poor finishes in recent weeks, particularly after the wreck that he started last week at Daytona. Stenhouse Jr.'s last top 10 had been Talladega in early May. But the No. 17 stayed at or around 10th most of Sunday's race and provided a much-needed solid run for a program that needs something good to smile about.
Wheel of Misfortune: Joey Logano - While running 2nd, Logano got wrecked accidentally by a septuagenarian, whom Logano was lapping for roughly the 15th time in the race. That's just plain unlucky.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - The best candidate for this award would have been Jeff Gordon, but he ran out of fuel and finished in the spot he came back from when he was down a lap early. Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, started the race 28th and slowly worked toward the front. He didn't have a great car, but had a hard fought finish and was clearly both worn out and disappointed they weren't better afterwards. Hendrick Motorsports has a lot of work to do at New Hampshire, considering the track's role in the Chase.
Ghost Driver: Brian Vickers - The winner at NHMS a year ago, Vickers was barely on TV the entire time around and settled for 21st. Vickers is yet another Chase bubble driver, who could have benefited from a good run and cut through some of the tightness in his part of the standings. Instead, Vickers slumps to 18th in points.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Morgan Shepherd - One has to admire his determination to try and race, despite his spry young age of 72. But Shepherd has little business being on the track anymore. Even without losing the handle on his car and crashing out Logano, Shepherd was well off the pace, though just above NASCAR's mandated minimum speed (NASCAR only warned him once for going below that point). But multiple drivers complained about his being in the way as they came around to lap him. Shepherd only was able to start the race, because two cars withdrew and that left the No. 33 locked in. Some said that Shepherd should have taken a high line around the track, instead of the low line he took when lead lap cars approached. Shepherd's being in the race would still have been easier to swallow, if he had owned up for his mistake. Instead, he told reporters that Logano should not have raced so close to him and sucked his car around in the corner. He commented on his radio laps after the wreck that he was struggling holding on to the ill-handling car - that remark took him 2/3 of the race to make. Shepherd finished 27 laps down with crash damage. He stalled out during the first caution on lap 15 and lost his first lap then. NASCAR shouldn't have an age limit, but should decide, much as they have with young and inexperienced drivers, if a driver is good enough to compete. In Shepherd's case, his four career Cup wins and massive experience are not simply enough to make the cut.
Georgia On My Mind: As promising as last weekend was, this one was rough for the Georgia gang. David Ragan finished 25th, but on the lead lap in the Cup race and overcame a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on the first stop. Reed Sorenson placed 33rd and three laps down in his No. 36 Chevy. Chase Elliott gets an honorable mention for his Nationwide Series comeback Saturday at NHMS. At one point, Elliott was a lap down as Keselowski dominated the race, but got a free pass and drove up to 8th. That put him two spots ahead of Regan Smith, the points leader by 13 over 3rd place Elliott. Ryan Sieg settled back to reality after his impressive Daytona run last week, racing to 18th and two laps down. The Camping World Truck Series race at Iowa Speedway Friday night had John Wes Townley as the lone Georgian, who finished a pedestrian 22nd, three laps down. Townley competed for the first time for Athenian Motorsports, owned by his dad, which essentially bought out Wauters Motorsports, for whom Townley had been racing. But the big Townley news was after the race, when JWT confronted Spencer Gallagher. Gallagher had been racing Townley hard and reportedly doored him as he passed, cutting Townley's tire and costing him spots at race's end. When told this, Townley went after Gallagher and threw a punch, an action that got him sent to the NASCAR trailer afterwards. After both calmed down, Townley apologized and shook hands and Gallagher manned up to racing him too hard, stating the two have had a bad on-track past. If that wasn't enough bruises on the Georgia peach, 17-year-old Brandon Jones dive-bombed NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race leader Matt Tift late in Friday's race at New Hampshire and took both from contention and drew the ire of many. NASCAR called Jones to its hauler post-race, making for the first time in a long time, if ever, that two Georgia boys got disciplined by NASCAR on the same day. Jones scored a win in his ARCA debut last weekend, but that celebration was dampened by his car failing post-race technical inspection. A quick nod goes to the Southern Super Series race at Gresham Motorsports Park Saturday night, where I am one of the track announcers. Georgian Anderson Bowen started and ran in the top 5 all night and stalked leader Daniel Hemric for about 60 laps. Each time Bowen tried to pass Hemric low, he couldn't complete it because Hemric had momentum on the high line. But finally he drew close and shot into the lead on the backstretch on the start-finish line on the 2nd to last lap and not only got his first win of the season, first win at Gresham, and first win in the Southern Super Series, but also led his first two laps of the year, despite having scored seven top 5s in the first eight races. Bowen also took the points lead for fellow Georgia Bubba Pollard, who led early, but had mechanical trouble in the race.
NNS RaceTweet: Cup drivers dominate again, with Keselowski taking the checkered flag at New Hampshire.
NCWTS RaceTweet: It was a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck, but youngster Erik Jones