LOUDON, N.H. — With about 70 laps to go in his back-and-forth battle against Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin radioed in to his team: "This is awesome racing."
Imagine how Keselowski felt.
The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion took the checkered flag Sunday afternoon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, beating Hamlin to the finish line by 1.647 seconds after trading the lead with him for most of the 301-lap race on the asphalt oval that is a little longer than a mile.
The two swapped stage wins and held the lead a combined 18 times before Keselowski earned his third victory of 2020 — all of them since NASCAR returned from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown in mid-May — along with the now traditional NHMS prize of a live lobster, this one an 18-pounder.
Afterward, Keselowski grabbed an American flag and spun his car around in front of a crowd that spent most of the race masked and socially distanced before crowding the fence to chant "Brad! "Brad!"
"It's so great to be racing back in front of fans again. It feels like forever, so welcome back, guys," said Keselowski, 36, who is in a contract year at Team Penske and now has 33 Cup Series career wins — all but one with Roger Penske's organization.
"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."
Hamlin also finished second in New Hampshire last year after a sprint to the finish that left him 0.210 seconds behind Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion who still leads the current standings with 803 points after Sunday's race. Harvick, who finished fifth Sunday, has four wins this season to rank second in the series.
Keselowski (722 points) is second in the standings, with Joe Gibbs Racing's Hamlin (688) third despite a series-leading five victories this year, including July 23 at Kansas Speedway in the most recent Cup Series race before Sunday.
"It was fun racing those guys. They were very very deserving today and I'm happy for them," Hamlin said. "The two best cars finished 1-2 today, and they got the better end of it. I was having a good time there."
JGR's Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 season champion, was third after working his way back from the rear of the field because of a penalty for a runaway tire in the pits.
"When those things happen, you just have to buckle down and get what you can get," Truex said. "Fortunately, we were able to come back from it."
Penske's Joey Logano, a two-time winner this season and the 2018 season champion, was fourth.
Kyle Busch was last after a flat front right tire on the backstretch sent the JGR No. 18 Toyota skidding into the wall after just 15 laps. The two-time Cup Series champion (2015, 2019) has a dozen NASCAR national series wins at NHMS, with three of those on the top circuit.
"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 New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu had said 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 Penske's Ryan Blaney. Keselowski took the second stage, passing Hamlin on the final lap of a two-lap sprint after a series of cautions late in the stage. It was his sixth stage win this year, the most of any driver.
Keselowski appeared to get the worst of a preseason staffing shuffle when he was paired with the least accomplished of the three Penske crew chiefs, but Jeremy Bullins has focused on helping Keselowski win races and earn a contract extension.
"Talking to Jeremy Bullins, it was, 'What do we need to do to get to the next level?' Go dominate a race, and that's what we did today," Keselowski said. "Jeremy and this team has been a good kick in the butt."
In his expected last start in New Hampshire, where he swept the Cup Series events in 2003, Hendrick Motorsports' Jimmie Johnson recovered from an early spin to finish 12th. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion finished the day 18th 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 Series 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 enthusiast, who ran in the Boston Marathon last year.
Others on the bubble jostling for the 16 playoff spots are 14th-place Clint Bowyer, who finished 18th Sunday, Matt DiBenedetto (15th, finished sixth), William Byron (16th, finished 11th), Tyler Reddick (17th, finished 10th), Johnson and Erik Jones (19th, finished 24th).
Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie were sent to the back of the grid because of improperly mounted ballast that was discovered during inspections before the race. Both crews were also docked 10 points in the driver and owner standings.
Jerry Baxter, the crew chief for Wallace's Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet, and Ryan Sparks, the crew chief doe LaJoie's Go Fas Racing No. 32 Ford, were suspended for the race.
Wallace finished 23rd. He is also a free agent, and RPM co-owner Andrew Murstein said earlier Sunday that the team had offered Wallace an ownership stake as part of a proposed extension.
Formula One: No stopping Hamilton
SILVERSTONE, England — Lewis Hamilton held on despite a tire puncture on the last lap Sunday to win the British Grand Prix, with the 87th win of his Formula One career moving him within four of Michael Schumacher's series record.
The season points standings leader secured his record-extending seventh win on the Silverstone Circuit by fishing six seconds ahead of Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who unexpectedly moved up a place after Hamilton's Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas sustained his own puncture with three laps left.
With Hamilton so far ahead, Verstappen went in for a tire change in a bid to gain an extra point for the fastest lap, but that pit stop ultimately cost him victory because Hamilton's front left shredded with half a lap to go. Verstappen swallowed up most of the 25-second gap but ran out of time.
"I definitely haven't experienced anything like that. I thought my heart was going to stop," Hamilton said. "Up until that last lap, everything was relatively smooth sailing."
Charles Leclerc finished third for Ferrari with Daniel Ricciardo fourth for improving Renault and British driver Lando Norris fifth for McLaren.