Denny delivers first points win of 2017 for JGR at Loudon

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It was only a matter of time before Joe Gibbs Racing got that elusive win in 2017. And Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team made sure that time was now.

Hamlin won the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for his first win of the season, virtually clinching his spot in the playoffs. The win was his 30th of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, third at NHMS and snapped his 28-race winless streak.


THE DELIVERIMANATOR

Love or hate his nickname (you should love it), Denny Hamlin did his sponsor proud and delivered on Sunday afternoon from “The Magic Mile.”

Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

He only led 54 of the 301 laps around the one-mile circuit, coated with PJ1 in all four turns, but was able to hold off a hard-charging Kyle Larson and grab the checkered flag by just over half a second. For Hamlin, he knew that Joe Gibbs Racing was close. And they finally closed the deal.

“(This is) a great feeling,” Hamlin, who crashed his primary car in practice on Friday and won in his back-up Toyota, told NBCSN in victory lane. “I know we’ve been getting better and better as the year goes on, but definitely needed a win for the organization and for myself and just kind of get some momentum going with the playoffs coming up, so we’ve got to get going. Really, this is awesome […] we get in the playoffs, we get some playoff bonus points and we’re ready to go now … we’ve still got a lot of work to do. I feel like we need a little bit more speed out of our cars to be competitive week in, week out, but honestly this is a great place to start.


THE FIELD

Following Hamlin across the finish line in second place was Kyle Larson. Martin Truex Jr., who won stage one for his 14th stage win of the season, came home in third place after leading a race-high 137 laps. The No. 78 also survived a flat tire as green flag pit stops began in the third stage to earn another top five. Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

Daniel Suarez matched his best career finish of sixth while Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson completed the top 10. Johnson was penalized on the initial start of the race for jumping the start. He started second and beat the polesitter, the No. 78 of Truex Jr., to the flagstand, which is a no-no. But the No. 48 rebounded for a top 10.

Some other notable finishers included Kyle Busch in 12th after multiple pit road speeding penalties, Danica Patrick in 13th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 18th and Joey Logano and Erik Jones outside the top 35 due to a blown left front tire and rear end problem, respectively.


UNUSUAL RED FLAG

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

I’d like to forget the 2010 Daytona 500. It’s known as the “pothole” race, not the one that Jamie McMurray won. There was a huge piece of track that came loose and forced the delay of the biggest race of the season for more than two hours. I had shades of that this Sunday.

After stage one of the Overton’s 301 ended, there was a smaller pothole that was discovered in the upper groove of a corner. The crack was discovered by safety crews just before the second stage began and the race was red flagged for about 5 ½ minutes while they made repairs. It was a quick fix—unlike Daytona. But nonetheless, something you don’t see every week.


BACK TO FRONT AGAIN FOR LARSON

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No—it’s Kyle Larson doing Kyle Larson things!

Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Larson won the pole for about 15 minutes, before his No. 42 Target Chevrolet failed post-qualifying inspection and was deemed to have an illegal rear deck fin. Larson started last—just like last week—and drove up through the field in no time—just like last week.

“Another hard fought race,” Larson told NBCSN following his ninth (yes, ninth) runner-up finish of the season and second in as many weeks. “You know, this is the third time we’ve had to start last and drove up to second. I wish we could have been a spot better again, but really proud of my team and proud of the cars that they’re bringing for me to drive each and every week.”

Honestly, people. The man is on another level. I missed the first 30 laps of the race and turned on my television as soon as I got home. I expected Larson to be somewhere around 25th place. Especially at Loudon, which is known as one of the toughest places to complete a pass. But he was knocking on the door of the top 10. TOP 10! That just isn’t supposed to happen, folks.


SLOW DOWN, ROWDY

Kyle Busch led 95 laps at NHMS. He won stage two. He won his 89th career XFINITY race the day before … but he didn’t win on Sunday. And that’s probably his own fault this time.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Busch was penalized for speeding on pit road in section five not once, but twice in the third and final stage of the 301-lap event. They also happened to come during his final two stops of the race on laps 237 and 262, respectively. The No. 18 wound up in a disappointing 12th place.

“I messed up a couple of times with getting the speeding penalties, and it pretty much cost us a chance for the win today,” Busch told NASCAR.com. “It’s disappointing, but we’ll look forward to getting to Indianapolis next week.”

Busch has not visited victory lane in 35 races—one of the longest winless streaks of his career. He is the two-time defending winner of the Brickyard 400, and would love nothing more than to earn that elusive victory, make it a three-peat at IMS and make it back-to-back for JGR.


PLAYOFF PICTURE

Now with only seven races remaining until the playoffs begin, the 16-driver field is beginning to look somewhat clearer–especially due to the misfortune of two major players.

Erik Jones, who blew a left front tire and slammed the wall on lap 42, ending his afternoon, remains on the outside looking in following his 39th place finish. He is 97 points behind the cutoff of 16th place, which happens to be Matt Kenseth, who Jones is replacing next season. The 21 year old will most likely have to put the No. 77 in the winner’s circle if he wants to qualify for the playoffs in his MENCS rookie campaign.

Joey Logano, on the other hand, has some room to work with. He sits 17th in the standings, 52 points behind Kenseth for the final spot. Logano’s win at Richmond Raceway pretty much doesn’t matter. It’s encumbered, meaning the No. 22 can’t use the win to qualify for the playoffs. Hence why he’s not in the postseason if it ended right now. Confusing? It’s okay.

Bottom line: Logano and Jones win? They’re in. Same with Kenseth, who is on the bubble right now. Same with Clint Bowyer, who has a 54-point gap to 17th place. Jamie McMurray and Chase Elliott should be solidly in, but a win before Richmond would calm all their nerves.


WHAT’S NEXT

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next weekend for the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400. Yeah, quite the mouthful. I absolutely despise that name, so I’m just going to call it the Brickyard 400—like it should be.

The NASCAR XFINITY Series will also be in action and run restrictor plates in somewhat of a test race at IMS. The MENCS event will be Sunday, July 23 at 3 p.m. ET with television coverage on NBC.