16 July 2012
Kahne wins after Hamlin gets over-tyred
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."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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