24 September 2012
Hamlin delivers with dominant display
Denny Hamlin raised eyebrows by predicting that he'd win at New Hampshire: but that was nothing to the shock everyone had when they saw just how dominant the #11 proved to be.
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.
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