Hamlin holds off Keselowski for fifth Cup victory of season

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Photo credit Denny Hamlin drives during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Thursday, July 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Denny Hamlin raced to his his series-leading fifth NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season Thursday night, passing Kevin Harvick in the closing laps and holding off Brad Keselowski to make it back-to-back victories at Kansas Speedway.

Hamlin had struggled the past three weeks, failing to finish better than 12th. But after showing good speed early, his Joe Gibbs Racing team made all the right calls during a crash-filled final stage to win in front of empty grandstands.

Keselowski finished second and Martin Truex Jr. came across third. Harvick wound up sliding to fourth and Erik Jones, who hadn't been quiet all night, rounded out the top five to cap a banner night for the Gibbs boys.

Joey Logano led early before his night went sideways — and took some playoff contenders with him.

His problems began when a tire got loose on pit road during the first stage, sending him to the back. He was working his way forward early in the final stage when his left front tire went down, sending Logano into the outside wall. Matt DiBenedetto and Jimmie Johnson, the last two drivers on the good side of the playoff cut line, sustained heavy damage as the field checked up. So did Austin Dillon, who was the surprise winner last weekend at Texas.

“I'm pretty freaking irritated. We’ve had garbage luck the last few weeks," DiBenedetto said. “We have no horsepower. It takes us 45 minutes to get going. The restarts as just wild. But that's what is happening.”

Logano said he felt his tire going down just before green but thought “it wasn't bad.”

“Maybe it was bad judgment on my part,” Logano said, “and I didn't want to lose any track position for something that wasn't bad. It's one of those judgment calls. I just feel bad for everyone else.”

Another wreck during the next always-chaotic Kansas restart collected Ryan Preece, Chris Buescher, Ryan Newman and Christopher Bell. Preece hit the inside wall with such force that his car leaped several feet into the air.

It would have been an exciting show for fans if there was any. After about 20,000 wore masks and braved stifling heat in Texas, the grandstands were again empty at Kansas. Soaring numbers of positive COVID-19 tests forced speedway officials to run this weekend — including upcoming races in the Xfinity, Truck and ARCA series — without any fans.

The next race at New Hampshire can have about 19,000 fans. The following doubleheader at Michigan will not have any.

Kyle Busch finally had something go right during what has been a frustrating season. The defending series champion, whose only win in his last 40 starts in the Cup Series came in last year's finale, held off Hamlin and Truex to win his first stage of the season.

It was another race between teammates for on Stage 2. This time, it was Keselowski getting around Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney — who was so dominant at Texas but failed to win — on the penultimate lap to take the stage.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s challenging year continued when he went to the garage early with a mechanical problem. It also was a rough night for Bubba Wallace, who spun early in the race coming out of Turn 4 and then plowed into Matt Kenseth when he spun in the middle of the same turn early in the final stage.

“We’ve had some really bad weeks,” Stenhouse said. “Lost the balance a little bit but felt like we were pretty close. But I don’t know, a fire started in the cockpit. Something electrical in the dash.”

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