Kasey Kahne won Sunday afternoon's LENOX Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, after a miscommunication between Denny Hamlin and his crew chief caused the longtime race leader to get four tyres when everyone else was taking two. That extra time in the pits cost Hamlin the lead, and ultimately the race win despite a spirited comeback fight over the final laps.
"We ran in the top five the whole race, but Denny was obviously the best car," admitted Kahne in victory lane. "We just had to battle hard throughout the whole race. We did it. We had good pit strategy, got the track position, and we were able to lead those final laps there."
Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch had led from pole position for the first 66 laps of the 301-lap race, with Hamlin starting from third and soon taking over second place from Kasey Kahne on lap 9. Michael Waltrip Racing duo Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. were initially running in fourth and fifth, until Kahne's Hendrick Motorsports team mates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and eased past them into the top five over the course of the first 35 laps.
Hamlin had lost momentum behind lapped traffic while pressing Busch for the lead and Kahne took over the second seat again on lap 28, closing right up on the #18's bumper as they worked their way through slower cars but unable to get past Busch as the first round of pit stops loomed under green flag conditions.
Busch did finally surrender the lead to Hamlin for his pit stop on lap 67, a sluggish stop for the #18 with problems on the right rear compounded by getting slapped with a drive-thru pit lane speeding penalty dropping him to 23rd with 26 cars on the lead lap, meaning that his time in front was well and truly over.
By the time the cycle of stops was complete, Hamlin was confirmed in the top spot a second ahead of all four of the Hendrick cars that were now running in the remainder of the top five - Kahne ahead of Gordon and Johnson and now joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fifth, with Brad Keselowski having moved up into sixth spot from 22nd on the grid.
The race was 45 minutes and 89 laps old when the first caution of the day came out for debris in turn 3. With not much mileage since the previous stop, many cars were happy going for two tyres this time around and some like Kyle Busch gained placed on a fuel-only gambit with an eye to making it all the way home on just two more stops. Jeff Gordon opted to stay out altogether and assumed the lead ahead of Hamlin, but was warned by his pit crew that this left him 10 laps shy of being able to make it home without an an additional splash-and-dash later in the race as things stood: he was hoping for a caution, or perhaps for the rain on the fringes of the radar to make an appearance.
Hamlin confirmed what many had suspected - that he had by far the best car of the day - by swiping the lead from Gordon at the restart on lap 94 and pulling away into a lead over over 2s as Gordon started to complain about the #24 feeling increasingly loose and finally ended up dropping second to Jimmie Johnson on lap 109, and third to Kahne on lap 136 as his next pit stop neared without any sign of the caution he needed materialising.
Sure enough, Gordon was in on lap 146 just before the halfway point with the rest of the field still some time away from their own next visits to pit lane. In the meantime that put Gordon a lap down in 22nd place, and then gradually he bubbled up through the placings as the cars started to peel off onto pit road for their own stops over the next dozen laps. Kyle Busch even returned for a brief encore in the lead before his own stop, which promptly put him back in ninth behind Truex with whom he'd grown increasingly frustrated at the perceived lack of any help or consideration as he sought to recover from the earlier pit lane miscue.
Once all that was done, the status quo at the front was restored and Hamlin was in the lead again, Gordon briefly back in second place ahead of the rest of the Hendrick contingent before once again slipping back behind Kahne and Johnson as he sought to stretch his fuel as far as possible.
"When we got track position we weren't able to maintain it," he admitted after the race. "It was just a disappointing day when you look at what our goals are right now. We've got to be up there battling for wins if we are going to make this Chase and then get those wins. At the beginning I thought we were equally as good as anybody: I don't know, from that second run on it just went downhill."
As the weather started to noticeably deteriorate over the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski decided it was time to move up and duly broke up the cosy Hendrick quartet by slipping ahead of first Earnhardt for fifth on lap 181 and then Gordon for fourth on lap 185. Kasey Kahne had similarly got the call to hurry up and was busy closing the gap between himself and race leader Hamlin.
Then on lap 189, proceedings were interrupted by the second debris caution of the afternoon. With reports of drizzle starting to fall on the track, Kyle Busch opted to stay out on track in the faint hope that the race could be heading for a red flag, but most everyone else took to pit lane. Gordon was one of the few to opt for four tyres while most drivers took two, but it only dropped the #24 to ninth off pit road with so many cars now lapped - one of the most recent being Tony Stewart, who had been in a sluggish mood all afternoon but who now took the wave-around under the caution to belatedly get his lap back.
Hamlin resumed in second behind his stop-out team mate, with Kahne, Johnson, Keselowski and Earnhardt lined up in the top six. When the track did go green on lap 197 despite the light rain, Hamlin quickly passed the #18 on its worn tyres and pulled away, leaving Busch to do his best to fend off the advances of Johnson in the #48 as he sought to stretch his fuel far enough to keep him on the one-stop-remaining pit strategy as the rest of the field now that the rain had abated and was no longer an imminent factor.
He made it and pitted on lap 232, but that was the last decent break he got. While he was on pit road, the third caution off the day came out for David Reutimann blowing the #10's engine. Busch also overshot his pit stall which meant his stop was slower than that of Johnson who'd come in at the same time, which meant that he wasn't even in the 'lucky dog' position one lap off the lead and had to rely on the wave-around to get back onto the lead lap as the rest of the field cycled down pit road for their final stops of the afternoon. That left Busch down in 18th place for the restart and pretty much out of the count for a decent finish.
But that wasn't the end of the pit nightmare for Joe Gibbs Racing: Denny Hamlin came down pit road under the caution, and then watched amazed as his #11 car was fitted with four tyres while everyone else went for two. It was the result of a miscommunication between Hamlin and his crew chief Darian Grubb, but it was a costly one: Hamlin would now take the restart from 13th place, his earlier dominating lead now just a fond memory unless he had the raw pace on his accidentally complete set of new tyres to run to the front.
That left Kasey Kahne in charge at the front followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., with Kevin Harvick making his move into third ahead of Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman. Bowyer took over second spot right away as the green came out on lap 239 with 62 laps remaining, but he couldn't depose Kahne. Meanwhile, further back something angry was stirring: Hamlin was on the move and coming fast, leaping up into top five again within 20 laps of the race going back to green but still almost five seconds off the leader.
Hamlin kept on coming: with 29 laps remaining he was past Earnhardt for third place six laps later put Bowyer to the sword into turn 3. The gap down the road to Kahne was down to three seconds, but Hamlin was running out of time and laps to pull off the recovery drive of the year. Kahne's pit crew were calmly reassuring their man that Hamlin had a long way to go yet and that Kahne himself shouldn't be pressured into overdriving it and making an error. Sure enough, Kahne was holding his lead steady as the chequered flag approached.
"I was definitely focused on the lapped cars I was going by and how I could clear them quick," said Kahne. "But, I lost a ton of forward drive and I was getting pretty loose and Denny was coming on four. So I was paying attention to where he was, but I felt pretty good about the lead we had."
Hamlin closed to under a second, but that was as close as it got: the fairytale comeback was not to be, Kahne claimed the win and Hamlin was left listening to the profuse apologies of his crew chief over the radio: "That was 100 per cent my fault," said Grubb.
"Darian asked me how much of the tires I felt like I used up," explained Hamlin. "I said I felt like I used them up a substantial amount: I'd been on the lefts for quite a few laps, and so my information to him was that, yeah, we'd used up the tyres. He said, 'I think two is the call.'
"I said 'Okay, just give me tyres and no adjustments,'" he continued. "He took that as I meant four tyres. Just that small communication messed us up a little bit."
However, Hamlin shrugged off the disappointment and said that even if all had gone well, the victory was no sure thing: "Nothing's a given. Even though it was pretty obvious that we had a win in the bag if we took two tyres, you never know what could have happened."
Second is still no small achievement. Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski and Gordon rounded out the top six with Johnson pushed down to seventh place ahead of Kevin Harvick.
"We had a great race car," said Johnson. "There was a lot of speed in the car. It was the Gibbs cars and the Hendrick cars, and at times I was the best Hendrick car running top two, two three. But then that caution put us back in traffic. We still got through there, decent."
As for Harvick, he admitted that eighth was about right for the #29. "We finished about where we should have," he said. "Our car was really tight to the centre of the corner and we never could fix that without making it too loose off."
In the Sprint Cup championship, Matt Kenseth continues to lead by a margin of 16pts over Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite what by any standards was a phenomenally bad day for the Ford stable at Loudon. After Greg Biffle in ninth, Kenseth was the top Ford-powered car in New Hampshire in Sunday - but that was in a distant 13th place.
"We didn't have one of the best cars, it seems we struggle here as a company a little," he said. "We could never get it good enough to run with the real good guys, so then it's really about pit stop strategy and restarts. We got it back there at the end and was faster than the three or four cars in front of me, but I just couldn't figure out how to pass them."
The next of the Ford runners, Carl Edwards, finished in 18th place at the back of the lead lap; Marcos Ambrose finished in 19th as the first car off the lead.
"When we put on two tyres at the end we went backwards because we hadn't put on two tires to that point and it was extremely loose. The pit stops were great and I thought the strategy was great, but we just missed something in the setup." said Edwards, who is now dangerously adrift of making the post-season Chase play-off for the title. "It's really frustrating because, obviously, we needed a good run here today for the points, but we'll keep fighting and make something happen."
The top ten in the points are pulling away from the rest, with 46pts - a full race win - now separating Brad Keselowski in tenth place from Carl Edwards 11th with only seven races remaining until the Chase cut-off. The only other way into the Chase is through one of the two "most wins" wild cards, currently taken up by Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch.
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