LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Brad Keselowski won at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday for his third victory of the NASCAR season and 33rd of his career.
Keselowski and Denny Hamlin swapped stage wins and had the lead a combined 18 times before Keselowski, who is in a contract year for Team Penske, took the checkered flag 1.647 seconds ahead. After the victory, Keselowski grabbed a U.S. flag and spun his car around in front of a crowd that was masked and socially distanced for much of the race before crowding the fence to chant "Brad! “Brad!" at the winner.
“It's so great to be racing back in front of fans again. It feels like forever, so welcome back, guys,” Keselowski said. “We’re just so glad to have them all back. It feels so weird to be racing without fans, but we’re glad you’re here. I hope you stay safe and thank you for being here.”
Martin Truex Jr. was third after working his way back from the rear of the field because of a penalty for a runaway tire in the pits. Joey Logano was fourth and Kevin Harvick fifth.
Kyle Busch was last after a flat front right tire on the backstretch sent him skidding into the wall after just 15 laps. The reigning Cup champion is a 12-time winner in New Hampshire, including three in the top series.
“About halfway down the backstretch I felt it go flat and tried to get slowed down enough without taking everybody else running over me behind me down the straightaway," he said. "Seems to be our luck with the Pedigree car here at New Hampshire. ... It’s still 2020, but sooner or later we have to turn this stuff around.”
The track has a capacity of 76,000, but Gov. Chris Sununu said last week that he expected about 12,000 fans to attend. A track spokeswoman said attendance would not be announced, but it appeared to be about 10% full.
The governor gave a brief welcome before the race and thanked fans for cooperating with the restrictions. Fans were required to wear masks when making their way around the track but could remove them in their seats.
Hamlin won the first stage after fighting for the lead with Keselowski and Ryan Blaney. Keselowski took the second stage, passing Hamlin on the final lap of a two-lap sprint following a series of cautions late in the stage. It was his sixth stage win – the most of any driver.
“We were going back-and-forth," Hamlin said. "Wow, that was some really, really good short-track racing there. Hopefully the fans liked what they saw there with me and the (No.) 2 for most of the day. Some great side-by-side racing. We treated each other fair and it’s good that we got 1-2 out of it.”
In his last start in New Hampshire, where he swept the Cup Series events in 2003, Jimmie Johnson recovered from an early spin to finish 12th. The seven-time NASCAR champion entered the day 19th in the playoff race -- below the cut line -- and has only six races left to make up ground.
Johnson, who has said this will be his last year as a full-time Cup driver, was presented with a replica Revolutionary War musket as a parting gift, and “Thanks Jimmie 48” was painted on the inner wall. A trail on the property was named the Jimmie Johnson 5K trail for the fitness nut, who ran in the Boston Marathon last year.
Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie were sent to the back of the grid because of improperly mounted ballast that was discovered during pre-race inspection. Both crews were also docked 10 points in the driver and owner standings.
Jerry Baxter, the crew chief for Wallace’s No. 43 car, and Ryan Sparks, the crew chief doe LaJoie’s No. 32, were suspended for the race.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports