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It's almost fair to say that there was never anyone else in it. Brad Keselowski's domination of the Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday afternoon was so comprehensive that even though he would occasionally allow other drivers to have a go in the lead, there was never any question who would be out in front when the time for the chequered flag came.
However, before Keselowski had a chance to show what he had under the hood, the race got off to a dramatic and disastrous start for Jimmie Johnson who was sharing the front row with pole winner Kyle Busch. No sooner had the green flag been shown than Jimmie Johnson was on the Hendrick team radio to report that his left rear tyre was going down, forcing him back onto pit road for an unscheduled stop. That put him down to 42nd place a lap off the lead, but worse was to come: three laps after rejoining, the #48 suffered another tyre failure, and this time it had put the car into the wall in turns 1 and 2 on lap 14. The damage was bad enough to mean there would be no return for Johnson.
"The first one I was able to drive the car all the way through turns 1 and 2. I knew I had a flat and then got down the back and came in," he explained afterwards. "The other one just blew on the straight as soon as I hit the brakes. I'm not sure what caused it.
"We've been here for two days running and I had no issues," he added. "It's unfortunate, regardless. And then you can look at the second tire and think that maybe some damage was done from the first tyre that caused the second one to go so quickly. That's a good argument but I just don't know at this point. I don't know if we'll ever know. Unfortunately, two tyres went flat in a matter of laps."
The top 15 stayed out but there were plenty of takers looking for an advantage with an early off-sequence stop. Kyle Busch still had the lead for the restart but the two Penskes of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski immediately took up pursuit when the green flag came out on lap 21. In fact it was Busch's team mate Denny Hamlin who was quickest to thread his way though into second to make it a Joe Gibbs Racing 1-2, Hamlin soon going on to take over the lead from Busch on lap 62 with little quarter apparently being given between the pair as they battled for position.
Hamlin maintained his hard-won lead through a round of green flag pit tops that got underway from lap 74, but soon afterwards it was time for Keselowski to lay his cards on the table. He duly took over the lead on lap 90, soon pulling out a lead of a second over the JGR contingent which had now grown to three with the addition of Matt Kenseth climbing into fourth place. Keselowski was making fast work of lapping cars on the one mile short track - last week's Daytona winner Aric Almirola had just been passed to leave only 20 cars still on the lead lap - when a debris caution came out on lap 112 to give everyone a breather and a chance to pit, while Almirola got the free pass.
Kyle Larson was the exception to the rule and stayed out, maintaining the lead at the restart over Busch who had won the race off pit road. The #18 wasn't able to maintain second either, with Kenseth soon flying past both Kyles to pick up the lead on lap 128 and Keselowski following him through to place himself into second. Kenseth then found some debris on his front grille causing overheating to the Toyota engine, and so he gave up the lead on lap 139 to use the aerodynamic vortex off the back of the #2 to suck the debris clear - a ploy that actually worked rather well for once, although the cost was freeing up Keselowski to stretch out a three second lead over the field.
A debris caution just past half distance on lap 153 closed the field up again, and divergent pit strategies scrambled the running order for the restart: Logano was in the lead over Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Martin Truex Jr, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch who was in eighth as the highest-placed driver to have opted for four tyres. Keselowski made the same choice and dropped to 11th for the green flag, which resulted in a messy start with a lot of jostling at the front that opened the door for Bowyer to thread his way into the lead on lap 158.
Predictably the men on the move were Busch - who was soon back into second - and Keselowski, who drove around Busch and then tore into Bowyer's lead, and just as the #2 put its nose in front of the #15 there was a new caution for debris in turn 1 on lap 177. The leaders stayed off pit road this time, so Keselowski led Bowyer to the restart and made good his earlier pass by reconfirming his lead of the race. This phase proved to be a good one for Logano, Kenseth and for Jeff Gordon who had earlier been struggling with set-up issues but who was now storming back into the top ten, but a poor one for Busch whose handling seemed to have gone away from him.
Keselowski and Logano were reunited at the front and cruising past backmarkers when disaster struck the #22 as he attempted to follow Keselowski past Morgan Shepherd (who at 72 was setting a new record for the oldest driver to compete in a Cup race.) As Logano manoeuvred past the #33 on lap 211, Shepherd moved up the track and made contact, sending Logano spinning into the wall, triggering a new caution.
"I got taken out by the slowest car out there," fumed Logano. "You would think there would be some courtesy to the leaders. We were in second place. He gets out of the way on the straightaway and then goes into the corner and slides right up into the lane I was in. Whatever. I don't know.
"I can't get too mad at ourselves over this," he added. "It is just dumb that it happened. I feel like that should be stuff that shouldn't happen at this level of racing."
Bowyer, McMurray, Gordon, Earnhardt, Kahne and Larson took two tyres and won the race off pit road while Keselowski again opted for four and rejoined in eighth. The JGR trio also opted for four and started even further back. Not that it took Keselowski long to win those dropped positions back - 11 laps later and he was back in the lead again. Nothing was stopping the #22 today, it seemed.
However, for once Keselowski didn't race off into the distance, and that signalled the fact that everyone was now racing with one eye on the fuel gauge. Keselowski's crew chief Paul Wolfe feared that his man needed seven caution laps to be in with a chance to make it, and even then he wasn't confident about the call so when a caution for debris was called on lap 249 the #2 was brought onto pit road for more fuel and just the two tyres this time. Six cars decided to take the fuel gambit and stayed out - Gordon, Hamlin, Harvick, Busch, Menard and Biffle - while Keselowski rejoined in ninth behind Kenseth and Bowyer.
Of course, Keselowski was now off the fuel conservation leash and began working his way back to the front, taking the lead once again on lap 270, not as fast this time with only the two fresh tyres but still unassailable as far as the rest of the field were concerned. The Penske crew were gearing up to celebrate when Justin Allgaier spun out with four laps remaining to set up a green-white-chequered overtime, which well and truly put paid to many of those who had been trying to stretch their fuel to the ragged edge: Hamlin, Vickers, McMurray, Truex Jr, Biffle, and Menard were among those now forced to pit.
Harvick tried to tough it out, but when the first GWC attempt came the #4 ran dry in turn 1. He moved off the track in time to avoid a new caution, and Keselowski was able to go the distance and clinch the chequered flag without further ado. Crossing the line in second place to Keselowski - just as he had 24 hours earlier in the Nationwide Series race - was Kyle Busch, with Larson, Kenseth and Ryan Newman rounding out the top five and Bowyer holding on for sixth place.
"It is every drivers dream," said Keselowski, who ultimately led for 138 of the 305 laps at NHMS. "Every once in awhile you get these cars and you are thankful and try like hell to not screw them up," although he added that it had by no means been the plain sailing that it might have appeared from outside the car.
"This was a hard fought battle passing cars and trying to stay up front all day," he said. "We had a couple bullets to dodge and I am not thinking of anything else right now than how thankful I am to have a team and car that is clicking this well. Hopefully we can keep it going."
It's Keselowski's 13th victory in 180 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and his third of the season, putting him equal on race wins with Jimmie Johnson. With Johnson dropping two places in the points standings as a result of his early retirement, Keselowski is currently now the top seed for the Chase standings, although Jeff Gordon - who ran out of gas during the final GWC restart and dropped to 26th place as a result - still has the points lead by 12 points over Hendrick Motorsport team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski moves up to third place in the points on the back of this week's win.
Keselowski even has a chance to savour the moment, with the Cup field now getting a rare mid-season weekend off next week. The next race on the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule is the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 27.Full Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup race results Sprint Cup Championship standings