In 2018, Kevin Harvick moved Kyle Busch out of the way to win the NASCAR Cup Series race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Last year, Denny Hamlin said that he could have returned the favor to Harvick for the maneuver he put on his teammate in Busch a year prior. He elected not to out of respect.
Do we see a third straight thrilling end of a race battle for Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN) in Loudon?
“I mean, look, he took his shot,” Harvick said of Denny Hamlin saying he wouldn’t purposely wreck Harvick to win last year. “And I think at that point, it’s kind of, ‘Do whatever you have to do.’
“It’s the last lap. And I think he thought he was going to move me up out of the groove, and I don’t think he expected for me to be in the middle of the racetrack and be on the brakes and all those things. There was just a lot of scenarios there.
“When you look at moving Kyle (Busch in 2018) up and out of the groove, I don’t think he expected to be up out of the groove at that particular point in time, and I think he did what he had to do.
“It’s just like 2018, like I didn’t want to dump Kyle, I wanted to move him out of the groove and try to win the race, and I think that’s what Denny was trying to do. We raced hard and tried to do each other as good as we could and still not sell our teams short. But I’ve been in position where I’ve dumped somebody, and it doesn’t work out well for you as you go through the end of the year.”
This year, we could see it happen again between Harvick and Hamlin.
We’ve had 10 different drivers win a race this year already, but the dominance of Hamlin and Harvick is striking. They’ve won an astounding nine of the 19 races run in 2020, including eight of the 15 run during the pandemic. The winning percentage on the season is 47.3-percent.
That can’t be understated enough.
What is even more interesting is these two winning juggernauts, Hamlin and Harvick, went head-to-head in a stellar battle to the finish in last season’s NASCAR Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was Harvick’s first win of the 2019 season and his fourth career win at the famous short track (2006, 2016, 2018, 2019). This season, Harvick heads to New Hampshire with a bit more early-season success. The Californian currently leads the series standings and has posted four wins (Darlington, Atlanta, Pocono, Indianapolis), 12 top fives, 16 top 10s and a notable average finish of 6.5 this season.
Even though Hamlin finished runner-up last season to Harvick at New Hampshire, he is currently riding a wave of momentum coming off his series-leading fifth victory of 2020 (Daytona 500, Darlington, Homestead-Miami, Pocono, Kansas). The Virginian is currently fourth in the driver standings but leads the series in Playoff points with 28. Hamlin also has accumulated 10 top fives, 11 top 10s and an average finish of 10.3 through 19 races this season.
Harvick leads all active drivers in wins at New Hampshire with four, Hamlin is right behind him with three. Hamlin leads the series in runner-up finishes at New Hampshire with five second-place results; including last year. Harvick is tied with Matt Kenseth for series-most top fives among active drivers with 12 each; Hamlin is right behind them with 10.
And while Hamlin leads the series in average finish at New Hampshire with a 9.8; Harvick is not far behind with a 12.8. Harvick has led the second-most laps among active drivers at New Hampshire with 759; Hamlin has led the fourth-most at 662.
Even the pre-race loop data points to Hamlin and Harvick as the favorites this weekend. Hamlin leads the series in average running position (10.6) and driver rating (103.6) and Harvick is right there with him in second in average running position (10.8) and fourth in driver rating (98.5).
So, with both having good track position up front at the start of the race, doesn’t that further their chances at a win?
“I’d say the most important thing at Loudon is track position, just because it’s hard to pass,” said Harvick on what makes you have success on the track there. “You want to be up front and on the right strategy no matter what you do. If the caution flag falls in the wrong spot and you lose track position, it usually becomes a longer day than it could have been.”
Kyle Busch, winless in 19 starts this season agrees.
“Essentially, at Loudon, you’re looking at how good your fuel mileage is and you have to look at when you have to make your last pit stop since that’s what everyone looks at,” said the defending series champion. “You end up running it almost like a road-course race because you do want to be the first guy on the last round of pit stops to pit. You want to get in there, get your tires and fuel, and then stay out the rest of the race and keep your track position since it’s so important there. It’s just a challenging race because it’s so hard to pass there. You can be two-tenths faster than a guy and not be able to pass him because everyone typically runs the same speed. You’ll have it where the leader might be a tenth better than the second-place guy, but everyone is separated by so little that it takes a mistake on someone’s part in order to pass them there.”