Denny Hamlin was ecstatic as he celebrated in victory lane at Loudon after a bruising, hard-fought race that saw him have to rebound from early adversity to score his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"We had the best car. Wow, what a day," said Hamlin. He wasn't wrong on either count.
CLICK: Full Xfinity Series race results from New Hampshire.
Hamlin had led the field to the green flag at the head of a 1-2-3 following success in qualifying for Joe Gibbs Racing, having picked up his 18th pole in 150 Xfinity races with a lap of 29.069s (131.026mph) in the final round of qualifying earlier on Sagturday which had put him 0.130s ahead of his team mates Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez. Penske's Brad Keselowski took the outside spot on the second row of the grid for the start of the Lakes Region 200 at the 1.058-mile oval.
However Hamlin was unable to fend off Busch when the field got up to speed, and it was the #54 who led for the first 22 laps of the race through to the first caution of the day for debris after Brennan Poole made contact with the wall and Harrison Rhodes' car picked up a bad smoking habit.
Hamlin's day appeared to be going from bad to worse when he spun out at the restart, with Hamlin admitting that it had been due to impatience on his part. The spin also caught out Busch and the pair took the next green flag at the back of the field in 28th and 29th positions with Keselowski inheriting the lead alongside Richard Childress Racing's Brian Scott as a result of the JGR pair's mutual misfortune.
By the time the third caution came out on lap 37 for Ross Chastain stopping on track after hitting the wall in turn 2, Hamlin had already marched his way forward by 18 spots. A round of pit stops promoted Hamlin and Busch back tot he front for the restart on lap 43 and there were punches pulled as the pair tussled for the lead which was finally won by Hamlin who then surged away and stayed on point for the next 72 laps which included a further caution period for Mike Harmon spinning out onto the grass in turn 4.
While Hamlin continued to lead, Busch was now complaining that his car was too tight and Suarez was struggling with an alternator problem that left the #18 underpowered. Hamlin himself was finding his own car was too loose, and the team advised him to switch off his brake fans to try and help the situation which certainly did enough to keep him out in front.
Hamlin finally surrendered the lead to Brian Scott for a pit stop on lap 120, but once the stops had cycled through Hamlin was back out in front despite being advised by crew chief Michael Wheeler to start saving fuel in case the race went to a green-white-chequered overtime finish. He was helped by a new caution on lap 140 for debris in turn 3 and by a sixth and final outbreak of yellows on lap 164 for fluid dropped by Scott's expiring engine, his fourth DNF of the season and the second due to engine issues.
Austin Dillon was able to get around Hamlin for the lead at the green flag leaving Hamlin complaining that the RCR driver had jumped the start, but five laps later Hamlin was able to close up and apply a firm nudge to the left hand side of the #33 that allowed him to then dive down low to retake the position, after which there was no stopping Hamlin from edging away from the field to clinch his 13th series victory and second win of 2015 by a half-second margin after leading for 145 of the 200 laps.
"We're both racing for the win. It happens. It's part of short-track racing," Hamlin stated. "I have a win. I had nothing to lose.
"When you're the outside car and you choose to run the middle, when somebody is underneath of you, you run a risk of that car more than likely washing up into you," Hamlin explained. "Everyone's done it. Austin's done it. Kyle's done it some time. We've all done it.
"But when that outside car chooses to hold you down and pinch you down, typically they get the bad end of the deal," he continued. "It's typically you pinch, you pay.
"I was eventually going to get back around him, anyway. I was a fender ahead, he drove in there knowing he was going to have to hold the position and I washed up into him," Hamlin said. "It's the heat of the moment. As upset as he was that I moved him out of the way, I was just as upset that he jumped the restart."
But Dillon remained distinctly unimpressed by Hamlin's hard-nosed tactics: "He never even went through a corner with me the whole race," Dillon fumed. "Didn't want to, just moved me, missed the corner, wrecked me. I'm fine with racing rough. I promise you, I can do it to anybody.
"He called me a spoiled rich kid at Texas two years ago, and I hate it," added Dillon, who is the grandson of team owner Richard Childress. "He said check the last name. I said my last name's Dillon, not Childress. But he is my grandfather. I'll always act with class. Everybody in the media knows that. I've worked my way here like anyone else. With Denny acting like that, what does he want me to call him? I don't do that. I know how to act."
Behind the feuding pair, Busch was struggling after a miscommunication during an earlier pit stop had led to the team only fitting two tyres to the #54 rather than the intended four, leaving him struggling for grip compared with Keselowski who was able to get around his Cup arch-rival for third place by the time the chequered flag came out.
"Obviously the #20 had a better car than us," Busch said, conceding that he was never going to get the better of Hamlin this time around. "They showed that today." As for his own in-race clashes with Hamlin this week, Busch was determined to be the team player on this occasion and not pour any further oil on troubled waters: "I was loose, and he was loose. Two loose don't make a right."
“We just weren't quite as fast as the #33 and the #20 were," summed up Keselowski of his own performance compared with Hamlin and Dillon. "They were probably the two best cars the whole race and the #2 car [Scott] looked like he was really good and the #54 I couldn't quite tell, but we just weren't fast enough this weekend.
"We were lacking a little bit of speed, but this is my first time working with [crew chief] Greg Erwin here and we'll get to work and come back a little bit better next time," he added.
Having adroitly managed his early alternator problems, Suarez finished in fifth place and was the first of the Xfinity Series regulars to cross the line just ahead of RCR's Ty Dillon, JR Motorsports' Regan Smith, Roush Fenway's Darrell Wallace Jr. and reigning series champion Chase Elliott. Brennan Poole rounded out the top ten for HScott Motorsports
Despite only finishing Saturday's race in 14th position and surrendering five points to Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher retains the lead in the NASCAR Xfinity Series standings by 31 points. Third place man Ty Dillon closes up three points on Elliott, with Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Darrell Wallace Jr. all within a hundred points of the championship leader.
"You don't want to lose points and we did that,” noted Buescher. "“We've got to try and get it back to where we started the year off and get some momentum back on our side and get rolling."
In the owners standings, Roger Penske's #22 car now holds a 46 point lead over the RCR #33, the race winning JGR #20 and the Jack Roush-owned #60.
The Xfinity teams are back in action again next weekend at the world famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Lilly Diabetes 250 on Saturday July 25.
See full Xfinity Series race results from New Hampshire and updated championship standings.