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Hamlin delivers with dominant display

24 September 2012

After running short of fuel and dropping seven positions at the end of the first Chase race in Chicago, and then a fumble with tyre pressures consigning him to 32nd in qualifying for the second event this weekend, you could have understood if Hamlin had been downhearted coming into the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Instead, he rallied the troops by saying in a tweet that he would win the race. It was doubtless a somewhat tongue-in-cheek declaration, but he knew that his #11 car was good here and had firm expectations of working his way back through the field to a decent finish at the end of three hours of racing. And as it turned out, that tweet ended up being one of the most spot-on predications anyone's been able to make so far about the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.

"You don't want to sound too cocky, but I knew what we were capable of - our car was extremely strong and I have a really good knack for this race track," Hamlin said about his pre-race prediction. "If you're going to say something like that, you've got to run extremely well. This team just gave me a great car this weekend and it was just untouchable here."

Despite his lowly qualifying position, Hamlin had scampered up into the top 20 by the end of the first dozen laps of the 1-mile oval, and he cracked the top ten after the pre-scheduled competition caution at the end of lap 40. After that he was positively lackadaisical in taking another twenty laps to get into the top five.

By that point, Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch had taken the lead from Tony Stewart, who had been blocked in pit lane by traffic and lost the lead that he'd won in the opening laps from polesitter Jeff Gordon. In any case, Stewart didn't look anywhere near as strong in this latest stint of the race and he soon fell down the running order as Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin got by him.

Kahne and Hamlin continued their charge and passed Gordon to take second and third slots respectively by lap 76, and then Hamlin decided to dispatch Kahne and go after the #18 for the lead, which he did when Busch encountered lapped traffic on lap 91. Once he was in front, Hamlin pulled away from the field pretty smartly and settled into the position that would be his for no fewer than 193 of the remaining 208 laps. No one came close or even threatened his total domination.

What was remarkable at this stage was that of the top 12 cars, all but one of them was a Chase contender. Kyle Busch was the cuckoo in the next and Dale Earnhardt Jr. the absentee as he laboured down in around 20th place in the opening third of the race. The Toyotas of the Joe Gibbs and Michael Waltrip Racing cars looked best suited for New Hampshire, with the Chevrolets of the Hendrick Motorsport squad (and by extension, Tony Stewart) also looking right on it. By contrast, the Fords of Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle looked merely average and the Dodge of Brad Keselowski simply rather lonely.

Hamlin continued to lead after the first round of green flag pit stops just after the 100-lap mark, leading Busch by around three seconds with Kahne and Gordon following close behind. There had been over 80 laps of green flag running by the time that the second caution of the afternoon came out for debris on lap 129.

Most cars took only two tyres at this stage and Hamlin and Busch resumed in the lead now followed by MWR team mates Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr; Tony Stewart was now a lot happier with new tyres and adjustments and slipped back into fifth place. Joey Logano was the top-placed driver to have taken four tyres and he was back in 16th.

Having worked his way diligently up from 20th position, it was Jimmie Johnson who perked up during this stage of the race and completed his move up toward the front, finally putting himself into a position to challenge Kyle Busch for second place on lap 164 - which he pulled off, remarkably easily. Almost immediately it was clear that Busch had a problem, and soon he was passed by Clint Bowyer, then Kasey Kahne. His engine was sounding sick and it was evident that the #18 was on life support, and crew chief Dave Rogers explained that it wasn't even worth brining the car in to try and effect repairs.

"Man, if it can happen this year, it's going to happen," he said. "Something went through the motor and knocked out a spark plug ... We pulled the plug out, and something had knocked the end of a plug off, because there were a lot of metal shavings in there. So I'm not sure if something broke in the motor and came up and hit the plug, or if we somehow passed debris through the air filter. But something, somehow got in the motor and knocked out a plug.

"It's one of those deals where we knew that if we came behind the pit wall to try to fix it, we were just going to lose a bunch of laps and a bunch of positions. So, we just stayed out there and rode it out," he explained. "Toyota does a great job for us, they'll bring it back to the shop and figure it out and make it better."

In the meantime the only remaining role Busch had to play in the afternoon's proceedings was to be on the receiving end of an almighty shove from old nemesis Kevin Harvick on lap 176, and then to slow up dramatically on lap 209 to allow Hamlin to catch him up to that he could use the back end of the #18 to suck off some debris on his own front grill that had been threatening to send the oil and water temperatures through the roof and blow the engine on the #11 as well. Once the debris was removed, Hamlin thanked his team mate by promptly putting him a lap down: by the end of the race Busch was left two laps off the pace and in 28th spot.

In the meantime, there had been a third caution of the afternoon on lap 178 - again for debris - which had enabled Brian Vickers to leap into the lead spot for the restart in the third of the MWR cars by being one of only takers for two-tyres only. Hamlin was alongside him for the green flag and promptly took his lead back, however, while Jimmie Johnson also eventually passed Vickers for second.

Vickers still held on to third place all the way through to the next round of green flag pit stops that started around lap 235. Vickers had to pay back the advantage he'd got in the earlier stop with a longer visit to pit road for four tyres this time, and when the stops had cycled through it was Hamlin leading from Bower, Johnson, Keselowski and Gordon as the Chase contenders continued to dominate proceedings.

With less than 30 laps to go and no cautions in nearly a 100 laps, Hamlin's lead was over five seconds and he must have thought that the race was a done deal - when the caution flags came out again on lap 272. Hamlin wasn't surprised, but he did sound exasperated as he sighed: "Really?" over the team radio. The timing just seemed too perfect, special-ordered by NASCAR to close up the field and make sure the TV audiences had a rousing finish to what had been, in truth, a fairly dull afternoon of racing for anyone who wasn't called Hamlin.

The TV cameras couldn't find the debris in question, but spectators at the track confirmed that it wasn't entirely 'phantom' - a spring rubber had found its way into the racing line, and that could slice a tyre open and cause a puncture if left unattended. Even so, it still felt like the sort of debris that would have been cheerfully overlooked in many other circumstances.

In any case, Hamlin the the rest of the top six stayed out of pit lane, and when the green flag came out it was clear that the pause hadn't taken any of the shine off the #11 car. He was away, gone, done. By the time that the chequered flag came out he was over two and a half seconds in front of Jimmie Johnson, who easily cruised home to second place.

Hamlin had delivered in that prediction; and in doing do, he'd also delivered the 100th Cup victory for Joe Gibbs Racing, something that his team owner was delighted by.

"It was a huge day for us," Joe Gibbs admitted. "Bobby Labonte came into victory circle and I appreciated Bobby, Dale Jarrett, Jimmy Makar, everybody when he first started, Tony - so it took a lot of people down the road. But, certainly, gosh, think back on my 21 years: just doesn't seem like it was that long ago and you realize that we've got a hundred wins. That was a huge deal for us."

He'd been especially impressed with the way that Denny Hamlin had led the team through a couple of weeks of self-inflicted mishaps that could have led other drivers to brood, but which Hamlin had reacted by galvanising the team with his public prediction of winning at New Hampshire .

"I really appreciate the way he handles everything," said Gibbs. "For two weeks in a row, we had two things happen on our race team that really [set us back] and I think the way Denny reacted both times was just absolutely great, I think that meant a lot to his team.

"The way you handle things like that, being the guy that's wheeling the car, I think is a big deal," Gibbs explained. "Last week, he was real relaxed afterwards and that person took it real hard. This week, I turned around when we figured out kind of what we thought [the qualifying error] might be in the pit area and Denny just grabbed the crew member in a headlock and was laughing with him like that. I thought for a minute it was going to be a headlock and a punch, but it wasn't!"

Johnson was content with second place in the circumstances. "We had a great race car, just not an amazing car like the #11 had," he admitted. "We were best in class today; did a great job. We really expected the #11 to be tough here today, and he was."

Johnson's Hendrick team mate Jeff Gordon managed to supplant Clint Bowyer for third place, but despite this strong showing after the disaster of last week's Chicago outing for the four-time champion, it's done almost nothing for Gordon's Chase hopes simply because so many of his rival contenders also finished up near the front.

"We gained a lot on a lot of guys - it's going to be tough to gain on guys like the #48 and the #2, certainly today nobody was going to gain on that #11," said Gordon. "It is one at a time. There is no doubt we can get ourselves back into this. We're a strong team, with fast race cars. We just have to consistently put those results together that we're capable of, and who knows where we can get to in the points."

Another Hendrick driver, Kasey Kahne, finished in fifth with Penske Racing's Keselowski in sixth, while Tony Stewart followed behind in seventh ahead of the first of the non-Chase runners Joey Logano and Brian Vickers in eighth and ninth respectively. Kevin Harvick ended up a respectable 11th place and Earnhardt Jr. managed to fight back to pip Mat Kenseth for 13th place.

Martin Truex Jr. fell back to a disappointing 17th place after running so strongly early in the race, putting him just ahead of Greg Biffle who ended up the lowest of the Chase contenders at Loudon.

"We were just battling overall grip," said Biffle of his own afternoon's endeavours. "Our car just didn't have any grip right when we unloaded off the truck and never fixed it. We were way loose in the corner and had no rear grip. We chattered the front tires. We chattered the rear tires. There at the end we chattered all four, so it was just back and forth with all four tires chattering but no grip at all."

Hamlin's win puts him back up into third place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings, while by finishing in second place, Johnson is on top of the Chase standings albeit by just one point from last week's leader Brad Keselowski.

"You know, when you get to the Chase, you need to execute on your great tracks and get the results you should there, and then on your tracks that aren't your best, you still have to have good days," explained Johnson.

"[New Hampshire] has been hit or miss for us over the years, so to come out of here in second, I'm real happy with today," summed up Johnson, very much looking forward to next week's outing at Dover. "Leaving the track that's been fair for me with above average finish and going to a track that I love next weekend, hope to get a great finish."

Full race results, Saturday practice times and NASCAR Sprint Cup championship standings are available.


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