Sunday’s race provided both with such opportunities, but it is just a beginning.
With NASCAR’s schedule rearranged by COVID-19 postponements and realignments this season, Sunday started a key stretch for the field.
Nine of the last 17 races, including Sunday’s event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, will be with the 750-horsepower package. The package was introduced before this season to enhance racing at ovals 1 mile in length and shorter and also at road courses. The change was made after the low-horsepower and larger spoiler package last year led to complaints from fans about the racing at short tracks.
The 750 package, which makes throttle control pivotal — putting performance more in the control of drivers — will be run the rest of the year at the Daytona road course, both Dover races and playoff races scheduled at Richmond, Bristol, Charlotte Roval, Martinsville and Phoenix.
While some competitors left New Hampshire feeling good about their chances in the title race at Phoenix — since both are flat 1-mile tracks and Goodyear uses the same time at those facilities — there’s plenty of time for others to learn and close the gap.
“I think you just have to keep working, just have to take every race as a practice session and learn everything you can from what we did today, the decisions we made coming here,” said Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Keselowski.
Sunday’s race featured 22 lead changes, including 13 between Keselowski and Hamlin. The previous two New Hampshire races had 24 lead changes combined.
Keselowski’s teammate, Joey Logano, also has been strong with this package on the flat short tracks. He won at Phoenix in March, finished fourth at Martinsville in June and was fourth Sunday at New Hampshire.
“The 750 package is a lot of fun,” Logano said. “There’s a lot more that the crew chief and the driver can really add to everything. It’s not a chaos restart at the end and something crazy happens that is unexpected. You’re not going to get that at 750.
“The good drivers and good race teams are going to win. That’s the bottom line. They’re challenging to drive. You’ve got to use both feet. You go to Kansas (with the 550-horsepower package) and all you’ve got to use is the right foot, so (the 750 package) gives a driver more tools to work with. You’ve got to think things through more. It’s not balls to the wall all day long, pushing as hard as you can on the repave and not paying a penalty.
“You come to these short tracks and there’s a penalty for riding the brake. There’s a penalty for pushing too hard on a short run compared to a long run. You’ve got to think more.”
Although Hamlin didn’t win, he left New Hampshire feeling good after answering some questions he and his team had about their performance with the 750 package on a flat short track. He crashed early at Phoenix in March. When the Richmond spring race was moved to Charlotte, he lost a chance to learn about the car’s handling there. At Martinsville in June, Hamlin was never a factor.
“I’m encouraged by the run simply because this is the first short flat track we have some data that we can build setups for other tracks like Richmond and Phoenix, the championship race at Phoenix,” Hamlin said.
Keselowski was encouraged by how strong he was in Sunday’s event, leading a race-high 184 of 301 laps.
“Third win of the year, but first kind of win where we’ve been able to kind of take control of the race,” Keselowski said. “Gosh, that feels good.”
How some drivers have fared racing the 750 package this year
Phoenix — 11th
Bristol — 1st
Martinsville — 3rd
New Hampshire — 1st
Phoenix — 1st
Bristol — 21st
Martinsville — 4th
New Hampshire — 4th
Phoenix — 2nd
Bristol — 11th
Martinsville — 15th
New Hampshire — 5th
Phoenix — 20th
Bristol — 17th
Martinsville — 24th
New Hampshire — 2nd
Phoenix — 3rd
Bristol — 4th
Martinsville — 19th
New Hampshire — 38th
Phoenix — 7th
Bristol — 22nd
Martinsville — 5th
New Hampshire — 9th