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Bent fenders, first-time winners define start of NBC’s NASCAR schedule

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We’re four races into NBC Sports’ portion of the NASCAR schedule and actor Michael Rooker was right about one thing: things have gotten real.

There have been four Cup races shown on NBC networks and each has delivered a finish – or lightning strike – worth talking about.

Each race has been won by a different driver who also was making their first trip to victory lane this year. Two earned their first career Cup wins.

Here’s a look at the how the second half of the season has unfolded.

June 30, 2019 – Chicagoland Speedway

Alex Bowman finally punched his ticket to victory lane in the Cup Series.

It took 134 series starts, three consecutive runner-up finishes earlier in the year and a lengthy rain delay to begin the race day.

Racing under the lights, Bowman dueled with Kyle Larson over the last eight laps, with the two drivers making contact with six laps to go as Bowman drafted off the left side of Larson’s car.

After he took the checkered flag, Bowman’s victory lane visit was delayed even further when his No. 88 Chevrolet got stuck in the rain-soaked infield.

“I’m the dumb guy that won the race and then got stuck in the mud,” Bowman told NBCSN.

July 7 – Daytona International Speedway

Though there wasn’t a dramatic on-track finish to the final scheduled July Cup race at Daytona, there was a surprise winner.

Justin Haley had to wait a significantly shorter amount of time than Bowman to get his first Cup win, celebrating his in 131 fewer races.

Following a massive crash with 43 laps to go, leader Kurt Busch and a group of other teams elected to pit when NASCAR said they would go back to green in one lap.

Then lightning struck within eight miles of the track.

The field was brought to pit road with 33 laps to go and Haley scored as the leader in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet, a team and car in their first year of existence.

The race never resumed as NASCAR eventually called the race official.

“I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega,” Haley told NBCSN. “It’s just unreal. I don’t know how to feel.”

While Busch had been on the “wrong side of a lightning bolt” he wouldn’t have to wait long for his own celebration.

July 13 – Kentucky Speedway

“Hell yeah! Hell yeah!” bellowed Kurt Busch on the start-finish line after the Quaker State 400.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver had plenty of reasons to be excited.

He’d just triumphed in an overtime finish over his little brother Kyle Busch.

It was the first time Kurt Busch had won in a 1-2 Cup finish against Kyle.

The elder Busch survived making contact with his brother twice on the final lap, including as they exited Turn 4 in the race to the checkered flag.

The victory was Kurt Busch’s first since joining CGR in December and also was the first career win for crew chief Matt McCall in 164 starts. The victory snapped a 64-race winless streak for Ganassi stretching back to the 2017 regular-season finale at Richmond.

July 21 – New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Kevin Harvick is the latest driver to end a lengthy winless streak with dramatic flair.

Sunday saw the Stewart-Haas Racing driver end a 21-race drought after he held off Denny Hamlin over the final 35 laps while racing on older tires.

After Hamlin and other drivers pitted under the final caution, Harvick and two other cars stayed out.

Hamlin wasn’t able to get within striking distance until the last lap. The two veterans slammed sheet metal twice, with Hamlin’s failed bump-and-run in Turn 1 and then Harvick cutting off Hamlin’s path as they exited Turn 4.

“I knew that (Hamlin) was gonna take a shot,” Harvick said. “I would have taken a shot. I stood on the brakes and just tried to keep it straight. I just didn’t want to get him back from the inside and let him have another shot. I wanted to at least be in control of who was gonna have contact in Turn 3 and 4. It was a heck of a finish, closer than what we wanted, but it was our only chance.”

Hamlin was left to re-think the final lap as Harvick celebrated in the background.

Second sucks,” Hamlin told NBCSN.

Up Next: Pocono

Six races remain in the regular season and the next chance for Cup drama will come at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), the 2.5-mile triangle that the series visited in June.

But the circumstances will be a little bit different. After complaints about the competition in June, the track will apply the PJ1 traction compound to areas in all three turns.

It’s the first time the track has applied the traction agent to its surface.

It will also be the third consecutive race the Cup Series has held on a track treated with it, following Kentucky and New Hampshire.

And we all know how those races ended.

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Denny Hamlin laments ‘stupid decision’ on final lap against Kevin Harvick

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In the aftermath of his runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick on Sunday in New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin was left regretting and praying.

He regretted his “stupid decision” on how to race Harvick on the last lap, which resulted in fenders banging and Harvick’s first win of the year.

That had Hamlin hoping a higher power might give him the win another way.

The tech gods could not be persuaded to intervene.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver wishes he had dealt with Harvick’s No. 4 Ford differently once they took the white flag.

He now knows he’d have been better off doing exactly what Harvick did in this race last year when he performed a bump-and-run on Kyle Busch in Turns 1 and 2 in the closing laps and went on to win.

“My decision was after Turn 1 and I got him out of the groove, ‘I don’t want to be the leader here, I’d rather be the guy behind’ and that was a stupid decision because I should have just went in there and carried him up the race track,” Hamlin said. “That’s just not the way I want to do it. We’re two veteran guys, we know how to race these things clean and let’s just figure it out in the end and he got the best of us.”

Hamlin said he has “lot of respect” for Harvick and “I did the best I could to be as clean as I could.”

Hamlin led 113 laps in a backup car after he crashed in practice on Friday.

“I knew we made it really good yesterday in practice, but once it got out front it was phenomenal and better than expected,” Hamlin said, but he lamented the difficulties of racing in dirty air with not getting to Harvick’s bumper sooner. “He never slipped a tire and I couldn’t quite get to him until he made that one little lane choice mistake coming to the white (flag) passing a lapped car and taking the bottom, I knew that was our opportunity to get a huge run and we did.”

Kevin Harvick wins at New Hampshire after last-lap battle with Denny Hamlin

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Kevin Harvick survived a last-lap battle with Denny Hamlin to win Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, delivering Stewart-Haas Racing’s first Cup victory of the season.

The two drivers made contact multiple times over the last lap before Harvick pulled away coming to the checkered flag.

Hamlin delivered a shot to Harvick’s rear bumper in Turn 1, sending Harvick up the track and allowing Hamlin to drive underneath him. After a drag race down the backstretch, Harvick pulled ahead and Hamlin went to Harvick’s outside as they entered Turn 3.

Harvick moved up the track as they exited Turn 4 and Hamlin banged Harvick’s right-rear fender before Harvick raced to the finish line.

“(Hamlin) got to me, he tried to move me out of the way down there, and I knew that was coming as close as he was,” Harvick told NBCSN. “So I just stood on the brakes and I’m like half throttle down the back straightaway. I’m like, ‘You’re not getting under me again.’ And he drove to the outside of me and I just waited till he got near me and I just put a wheel on him.”

Hamlin finished second after he led 113 laps, all of them in the final stage. Hamlin started the race from the rear in a backup car after he crashed in practice on Friday.

“I kind of shoved (Harvick) up a little higher and tried to get him out of the groove,” Hamlin told NBCSN. “I wanted to just tap him there, but I didn’t want to completely screw him. I at least wanted to give him a fair shot there. Down the backstretch, I kind of let off, and I’m like, all right, well, I’ll just pass him on the outside and kind of do this thing the right way, and once I had that big run, he just turned right. But I would do the same thing. It was a fun race, and congratulations to him and his team. They made a great call there at the end.”

The top five was completed by Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto.

Harvick’s win ends a 21-race winless streak for the No. 4 team, which last won at Texas Motor Speedway in November.

Harvick led the final 35 laps on older tires after Hamlin and other leaders stopped under a caution. The win is Harvick’s second in a row on the 1-mile track.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Aric Almirola

More: Results and points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Matt DiBenedetto earned his second career top five. Both have come in the last five races … Ryan Newman finished seventh after he started from the rear in a backup car and experienced engine issues mid-race. He’s had a top 10 in five of the last six races … Erik Jones placed third for the second race in a row.

WHO HAD A BAD A RACE: Richard Childress Racing has nothing good to write home about. Austin Dillon placed 32nd after he experienced two tire failures and hit the wall as a result of the first. Daniel Hemric was eliminated in a Stage 2 wreck after he was turned by contact from Daniel SuarezRicky Stenhouse Jr. was eliminated after a hard crash with 14 laps left in Stage 2 …. Kyle Larson finished 33rd after he was in two accidents. He spun from contact with Alex Bowman and backed into the wall on a Lap 218 restart. He then lost his right-rear tire and wrecked with 37 laps to go in the race

NOTABLE: Kevin Harvick’s four New Hampshire wins ties him with NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton for the most all-time … Jimmie Johnson finished 30th after he experienced mechanical issues during the race. It’s his second consecutive finish in 30th and he fell out of a playoff spot. He is 17th in the standings, 17 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds that final playoff spot.

WHAT’S NEXT: Gander RV 400 at Pocono Raceway at 3 p.m. ET on July 28 on NBCSN

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. calls out Erik Jones after contact leads to crash

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said Erik Jones will “get one coming his way before it’s over with” after contact between their two cars led to Stenhouse cutting a tire and slamming the wall Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Stenhouse’s incident occurred with 14 laps left in Stage 2 and after Jones’ No. 20 Toyota rubbed against Stenhouse’s left-front fender. It resulted in Stenhouse’s third DNF of the year.

“The 20 ran over us,” Stenhouse said. “He’s been known to do that to us a couple times now lately.  He’ll get one coming his way before it’s over with, or at least before I’m through with it.”

Stenhouse said he didn’t expect the contact from Jones.

“We had that restart with him up front (late in Stage 1) and didn’t have any issues, so he’s run over us a couple times, but that’s his deal,” Stenhouse said. “He’s gonna have to deal with it at some point.”

How would Stenhouse deal with it?

“Outside of the car or inside of the car – one of the two,” Stenhouse said. “I’m over it. We’ll see how it goes.”

Stenhouse entered the weekend 19th in the standings and 46 points behind Jones in 16th, who held the final playoff spot.

Jones went on to place third in the race and responded to Stenhouse’s comments.

“I guess go ahead,” Jones said. “He was racing me really hard and for nothing. We were 200 laps to go in the race, and he had the choice of lifting and letting me go, and he didn’t do it for five laps, and that’s just how it is. If you’re going to race hard, you’re going to get raced hard. I didn’t want to have to do it, but sometimes it comes down to it. I like Ricky, but he races really hard. I expect it. If I’m going to race Kevin Harvick at the front of the field like that 10 laps in a row, I’m going to get wrecked. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep moving forward and keep giving yourself a good day.”

Ryan Blaney fastest in final Cup practice at New Hampshire

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Ryan Blaney was fastest in the Cup Series’ final practice session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Blaney posted a top speed of 133.572 mph.

He was followed by Denny Hamlin (133.226 mph), Kyle Busch (132.739), Kevin Harvick (132.688) and Martin Truex Jr. (132.646).

Brad Keselowski (sixth) and Kurt Busch (14th) each recorded the most laps in the session with 61.

Blaney also had the best 10-lap average.

Click here for the speed chart.

Alex Bowman wrecked in Turns 1 and 2 in the middle of the session.

Bowman, who was already in a backup car after he had a driveshaft failure in qualifying Friday, will now go to a second backup car. The No. 88 team will use Jimmie Johnson‘s backup car.

Matt DiBenedetto‘s left-rear tire shredded twice during the session.

“Not a lot of warning, I’ll tell you that,” DiBenedetto told NBCSN after the first tire problem. “I went down into (Turn) 1 and I was passing (Landon Cassill), as soon as we got down into the corner I don’t know if we ran over something or what but the left rear went down in a hurry.”

DiBenedetto, who qualified seventh for Sunday’s race, was able return to the track to make a lap right before the session ended.