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.”

Bubble Trouble: New Hampshire tough on those trying to make playoffs

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Sunday was a day of trouble for many of the drivers seeking to make the playoffs, but when it ended, Ryan Newman solidified his spot with a top-10 finish despite mechanical issues.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson did not share Newman’s luck. Johnson fell out of a playoff spot after mechanical woes left him with a 30th-place finish for the second week in a row.

Here’s a look at what drivers trying to earn a playoff spot endured Sunday:

Ryan Newman — With just under 100 laps left, Newman radioed his crew that he thought his engine had lost a cylinder (it proved to be a broken coil wire) and he was down on power. When the crew told him to stay out, he responded by saying: “I ain’t coming in.”

Newman, who entered the race in the first spot outside a playoff position and in a backup car after crashing Friday, was running 14th at the time of the trouble. It looked as if he would lose several points. Instead, he managed to finish seventh to score his fifth top 10 in the last six races.

“Hell of a job today, guys,” Newman said on the radio to his team after the race. “That’s a never-give-up attitude.”

The recovery helped him climb from 17th in the points to 15th in the standings and in a playoff spot. Newman is 21 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who is in the first spot outside a playoff position.

Jimmie Johnson — A broken water pump and power steering issues sent him to pit road and he lost several laps for repairs. That left Johnson with a 30th-place finish, dropping him out of a playoff spot.

Johnson is 17 points behind Clint Bowyer for the last playoff position with six races left in the regular season.

“Certainly a letdown to say the least,” Johnson told NBCSN.

“Certainly the wrong time of year to have some bad luck. It looked like the guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best of days either. Maybe I got a pass on this one. Just disappointed to say the least.”

Clint Bowyer: A crash on a restart impacted his day and left him with a 20th-place finish that dropped him from 14th in the points to 16th, the final playoff spot.

Bowyer has finished 20th or worse in four of the last six races.

Kyle Larson: Two crashes in the final 85 laps left him with a 33rd-place finish for his second finish of 20th or worse in the last three races. Larson remains 13th in the standings and is 31 points ahead of Johnson.

Erik JonesHe had contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the track and Alex Bowman on pit road. He also had a pit road speeding penalty and thought he was going to be penalized another time on pit road. Through all of that, he managed to finish third for the second week in a row and solidified his spot after entering the day in the last playoff spot.

Jones is 14th in the standings, 28 points ahead of Johnson.

What Drivers Said at New Hampshire

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Kevin Harvick — Winner:  “We’ve run well enough a few times this year to win, and we’ve just made mistakes, and to finally battle and get over that hump is a great day for everybody at Stewart‑Haas Racing, everybody on the 4 car. I was really questionable about how that was going to go, and the thing took right off. The only thing that was not good for us was we got the traffic and my car started pushing. I knew (Denny Hamlin) was going to take a shot. I would have taken a shot. I just stood on the brakes and tried to keep it straight. I just didn’t want to get him back on the inside and let him have another shot. I at least wanted to be in control of who was going to have contact in (Turns) 3 and 4. It was a heck of a finish, closer than we wanted, but like you said, it was our only chance. I would have never done it, but that’s why he’s on the box and not me.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “I kind of shoved (Harvick) up a little higher and tried to get him out of the groove. 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.”

Erik Jones — Finished 3rd: “It was kind of a sloppy day in my opinion, but it was a good day. Got good stage points in the first stage and finished well at the end. But the Stanley Camry was good. All day I felt like we were close, we just needed to get up front and never quite did it and never quite got the lead, but we were there. Again, up in the top five you can’t complain, and especially with the points we gained today, it’s good. We can definitely get more aggressive with that gap. We’re getting close there to having almost a race on them; if we can have a couple more good weeks we’ll be there. Pocono is a good one. We’ll keep doing it, but today was definitely testament I think to our speed and this team. We keep fighting through it. We never gave up.  We did what we needed to do, fixed the damage when we needed to and got a good finish out of it.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 4th: “I didn’t think we had leader speed all day. We got better throughout the day for sure, but I thought maybe second or third. We got to second there towards the end and I was starting to fade a little bit, but I thought we could probably run second. The last caution when we started sixth, we got up to fourth and just kind of stayed there.  We just needed a little bit more speed, but, overall, not a bad day.”

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 5th: “That was awesome. Great comeback for us. We raced up there all day and had to adjust on the car a good bit because we missed basically all of the final practice. Just shows how good my team is and my guys. They’re the ones that deserve it – Procore, our sponsor, for sticking by my side and believing in me to do this deal and all the folks at Toyota. Gosh, I know I reiterate it, but it took a lot of people for me to get this deal. I’ll never go a day without appreciating it. It’s awesome. Great day for the team.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 6th: “We were set up strategy-wise to be right there with (Kevin Harvick) and (Denny Hamlin) and we were right behind those guys, so I think so, but you never know how these things are going to play out. The SiriusXM Camry was really fast when we could get near the front. It wasn’t quite good enough on restarts, and I kept getting inside restarts and just lost track position. Each time the caution came out we’d lose a spot or two and it’s just hard to overcome that, but proud of the battle that we came through to come from the back to get back to sixth with a tore up race car.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 7th: “Honestly, it was the most fun I’ve had all year in a race car, and that’s mostly because we had a good, competitive Oscar Mayer Ford. I slid through the box. We had a bad coil wire. We had a bunch of things that set us back, being in a back-up car starting last and to have the finish that we did at a track that is usually difficult to pass at, but I will say that I did pass a few guys three-wide and that doesn’t happen very often here.  I’m proud of the team effort and it’s something to build on for sure.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 8th: “We had a good car all day. Just got into it on a restart I guess with (Kyle Larson) and that got us damage and that got us behind the eight ball. We would have been on strategy with where (Denny Hamlin) was the whole rest of the day, but we had to fix damage.”

Joey Logano — Finished 9th: “We were off when we unloaded and we just kept trying to find a little something here and there to keep moving forward on things and never really did. We qualified eighth and ran about 12th to 15th most of the race.  We grabbed some stage points in the second stage and came home eighth or ninth, so that’s kind of the best we had. I’m a little disappointed with that. I want to be better here, but we learned what not to do and sometimes that’s very valuable.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 11th: “We scored a lot of points, but we just got behind. It’s kind of a double-edged sword when the caution comes out late like that in the stage. You’ve got to make a decision on scoring points or trying to win the race, and we chose to score stage points and that paid off.  We won the stage, but in the end we got behind and couldn’t recover from track position.”

William Byron — Finished 12th: “It was okay, we were just tight. We never had super-great track position and its tough to pass. I felt like our last run was decent, so going on to Pocono I think we will have a good race there.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 14th: “I wouldn’t call 14th relatively good. We had a pretty bad day, really struggled on restarts. We put a lot of right rear spring in it trying to get it to turn the center and it was just real popped-up on restarts. I don’t know. We did what we could and didn’t need those late race cautions. But we will move on to Pocono and be better there.”

Ty Dillon — Finshed 16th: “We brought a great GEICO Military Camaro ZL1 up here to New Hampshire. We had a loose wheel early on in Stage 1 that put us in a hole, but this team didn’t give up.

Daniel Suarez — Finshed 19th: “We had a fast Haas Automation Mustang today, but unfortunately we don’t have the result to show for it. We had that issue and it was hard to recover from, but the car had speed, which is good.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 30th: “Well, it was certainly a letdown to say the least. We had some issue with the power steering and the water pump pulleys. I thought it might have been from some contact on a restart. I got in the back of the car in front of me. They told me that wasn’t the case. So, I assume some debris got in the pulley system and took out my power steering and the water pump as well. So, it’s just unlucky on that front. Certainly the wrong time of the year to have some bad luck. It looked like the guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best day either, so maybe I got a pass on this one. I’m just disappointed to say the least.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 32nd: “The Behr Ultra Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was really fast all weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, so it’s a shame that we weren’t able to showcase that speed on Sunday. I could feel a vibration early in Stage 1 but wasn’t able to get to pit road before we cut a right-front tire and ended up in the wall. We still don’t know exactly what happened, but I’m sure the guys will be able to make a complete diagnosis on Monday. From there, it was a long day making a trip to the garage for repairs and then playing catch-up during the race. This No. 3 team has no quit. By staying out we were able to gain several spots that we wouldn’t have earned otherwise, so I’m proud of the guys for that. We’re focused on getting a win and making it to the Playoffs and we still have a few chances to do that.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 36th: “The 20 (Erik Jones) ran over us. 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. Our Fastenal Ford just wasn’t near as good as what we wanted it to be. Felt we were OK in practice. We qualified well and the first stage was going OK, but then we just lost the front turn in our car and never really could get it back. We were looking forward to hopefully making some more adjustment there before the end of the race and we just didn’t get the opportunity to after blowing that left-front. All in all it was a frustrating day for us, but hopefully we can learn something from it and come back with something better.”

Daniel Hemric — Finished 37th: “I hate that this is how our weekend ended at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with the No. 8 Okuma Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We worked on the handling of the car all weekend long and felt like we had something for them once the green flag dropped. We were racing inside the top 15 and just waiting for the car to come to me on the run when I saw the No. 48 car dive to the left down the frontstretch to avoid oil. I just tried to stay as far to the right of the oil and hold on into Turn 1, but I don’t think the No. 41 car saw the fluid and lost it underneath of me. The contact sent us spinning into the wall and caused some heavy damage to the nose and the right front, causing further damage to the motor. I feel like we had a strong car and had a solid day ahead of us, but it just wasn’t our day.”

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.”