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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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With an inadvertent but legal deke, Erik Jones rallies for third

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LOUDON, N.H. – With critical points hanging in the balance for a playoff bid, Erik Jones thought he screwed up Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Instead, he inadvertently might have stumbled across a new strategy for keeping opponents guessing on pit stops.

During the final caution with 35 laps remaining, Jones swerved to the right back on the racing surface at the last minute, driving over the pit lane commitment box.

Jones began fuming over the team radio, but he eventually was informed there would be no penalty from NASCAR, which changed its rule governing pit entry over the past two seasons. Drivers with four tires below the boundary must enter the pits; Jones had only his left-sides below.

Two tires below once would have committed a car to the pits at tracks such as New Hampshire and shorter, and that caused some confusion on Twitter (NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell clarified the call).

But it raises an interesting point: Should every driver who is committed to staying on track fake a move to the pits by rolling over the commitment box as Jones did?

“I don’t think NASCAR would appreciate that very much, and I’m glad we didn’t get a penalty,” Jones said with a smile. “But it’s definitely an interesting situation. I forgot (what) the rules actually said, and I think many people probably were surprised by that.

“So I think you might see some more faking out. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Crew chief Chris Gayle was sure Jones would escape punishment after he watched the replay and saw the No. 20 Toyota had at least two wheels above the inside boundary.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re good,’ because you’ve got to have all four below the box, and he kind of split it,” Gayle said. “I think he didn’t think about it. They say it in the driver’s meeting all the time now, and you’ve got to pay attention, but most everywhere it’s all four below the orange box.”

After restarting in second behind race winner Kevin Harvick, Jones hung on for third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and punctuated a race in which he overcame contact with two drivers and a speeding penalty.

He started fourth and catapulted into the lead with a two-tire call by Gayle on Lap 48. Jones finished second in the first stage and then made contact with Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet while exiting his pit stall on Lap 111. That necessitated another stop dropping him to 28th as the last car on the lead lap.

“We had contact here on pit road (in the 2017 race), and it ended our day, blew a tire on the restart, so we couldn’t risk that,” Jones said. “We couldn’t have a DNF, so coming down to fix it was the right thing to do. We had to make that right and put ourselves back out there, but it was up and down.”

While battling through the field 20 laps later, Jones made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who brought out a Lap 138 yellow by hitting the wall with a flat tire from the damage. Jones incurred a speeding penalty entering the pits during the caution.

But he restarted in 11th and steadily marched forward during the second half. He was in fifth when the yellow flew the last time, allowing Gayle to keep his car on track and restart beside Harvick.

“That was the good thing,” Jones said. “The (car) had enough speed to get back up there and get in contention. I think at the end with some clean air, we could be in (Harvick’s) spot, I think we were just as fast as him there the run before, so we have to keep putting ourselves up there, and eventually it’s going to work out, but a good testament to our team, just the way we came back today.”

With six races remaining in the regular season, he is ranked 14th and is 28 points above the cutoff line after entering New Hampshire in 16th with only a two-point cushion. But when other bubble drivers had trouble Sunday, it made Gayle’s strategy decisions simpler.

“It wasn’t as bad today because you start seeing other guys having problems that we were racing in the points,” Gayle said. “So when they all started having trouble, and we’re at the back, I’m like OK, this makes it a little bit easier. We can just do something and go for the win here at the end.”

Jones seems on the verge of a win after finishing third in four of the past nine starts.

With contract talks at JGR progressing well, the only cloud on the horizon might be Stenhouse, who vowed payback against Jones between and the playoffs.

“I guess go ahead,” Jones said when told of Stenhouse’s threat. “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.”

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

Longtime crew chief Nick Harrison dies at 37, team announces

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LOUDON, N.H. — Kaulig Racing announced Sunday morning that veteran crew chief Nick Harrison died. He was 37.

Harrison was the crew chief for Justin Haley‘s No. 11 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series and had called the car’s 13th-place finish Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

In a statement attributed to team owner Matt Kaulig and president Chris Rice, the team said in a tweet that “It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Nick Harrison, our beloved crew chief of the No. 11 car at Kaulig Racing. Please keep Nick’s family in your thoughts and prayers at this time.”

No cause of death or information on services was immediately available. A Kaulig Racing spokesperson said “further details would be provided as they come.”

NASCAR released a statement on Harrison’s death: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of longtime crew chief Nick Harrison, and offer our thoughts, prayers and support to his family, friends and Kaulig Racing colleagues.”

According to Racing-Reference.info, Harrison made his debut as an Xfinity crew chief in 2006. He was a crew chief for 184 Xfinity races (including 17 with Haley this year) and had five victories, his first with Kurt Busch in 2012 at Daytona International Speedway with James Finch’s Phoenix Racing.

He also worked 120 races as a crew chief in the Cup Series, including full seasons in 2011-12 with Phoenix Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet. He guided Busch to a third place June 24, 2012 at Sonoma Raceway, marking Harrison’s best finish as a Cup crew chief.

Harrison also won three times in the Xfinity Series with Austin Dillon and once with Paul Menard. He also won with Dillon in the Aug. 2, 2014 truck race at Pocono Raceway, one of three truck races for Harrison as a crew chief.

During a career with several teams including Phoenix, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig, Harrison worked with more than a dozen Cup and Xfinity drivers. The roster included Bobby Labonte, Bill Elliott, Boris Said, A.J. Allmendinger, Micahel McDowell, Regan Smith, Ryan Truex, Landon Cassill, Jamie McMurray, Ty Dillon, Jeremy Clements, Brandon Jones, Ben Kennedy and Brendan Gaughan.