Hamlin decimates field, scores fifth win of NASCAR season
Denny Hamlin's hat tip to Babe Ruth. (ASP, Inc.)
It appeared Denny Hamlin had a good idea that he would win the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Or at least run well. Maybe.
Actually, it’s hard to know exactly what he was thinking leading up to the second race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
After dropping from a top-10 finish to 16th with an empty fuel tank the previous week at Chicagoland Speedway, Hamlin tweeted, “This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”
Most took it as a prediction; a called-shot of sorts. And why not? Since his Sprint Cup Series debut in 2005, Hamlin has shown a flare for NASCAR’s flat tracks, registering 10 of his 22 career wins on the minimally-banked facilities in Loudon, N.H., Martinsville, Va., Phoenix, Az. and Pocono, Penn.
At the least it was a bold statement, even from a driver touted as a title favorite . However, Hamlin clarified his social-media sentiment on Friday, when he again took to Twitter, saying, “Not really sure what all the buzz in the media is about my tweet last week. I didn’t guarantee, didn’t promise, just made a statement.”
The theme persisted in his media availability later in the day, when he stated that, “I’ve had confidence before and I said at Pocono and different race tracks (that), ‘I expect to win’ — and it’s no different. Given our history here, given how we ran the first practice and hopefully how we run tomorrow, I’ll expect to win.”
Regardless of what it was, Hamlin backed it up on Sunday. Starting 32nd due to incorrect air pressure in his tires during qualifying, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver sliced through the field after the green flag waved.
By lap 30 he had entered the top 15, and 64 laps later took the point, passing teammate Kyle Busch.
From there, the route was on, as Hamlin led 193 of the final 206 laps to earn his series-best fifth victory of the season. In the process, he vaulted to within seven points of championship leader Jimmie Johnson.
“Once we got to about lap 50 and started working our way to sixth, seventh position, I knew that we had the winning car,” Hamlin said.
To find anyone else in the field that thought different would be a tall order. Second- and third-place finishers Johnson and Jeff Gordon could only shake there heads in retrospect.
“No,” was Gordon’s definitive response when asked if anyone had anything for Hamlin’s Toyota. “I don’t think that thing bobbled all day.”
“Never slipped,” Johnson concurred.
The only reason for concern on Hamlin’s part — and hope on Johnson’s — came when NASCAR threw a yellow flag for debris with 26 laps remaining. Hamlin, who enjoyed a nearly six-second lead at the time, could only show his disgust over the team’s in-car radio.
“Really, I don’t understand why they do this,” he complained after his spotter informed him that a caution had been thrown for “phantom debris.”
Hamlin got the jump on the lap 278 restart, though, and quickly pulled away for the 2.67-second win.
“I had a little bit of hope for just, you know, a quarter of a lap there,” Johnson said of possibly wresting the lead from Hamlin on the final restart. “And then it was like, ‘Uh-oh, don’t lose second.’ And then pulled away from Jeff and got going from there.”
And with victory claimed and burnouts complete, Hamlin threw one final “called-shot” innuendo into play — furthering the “did he or didn’t he” question — striking a Babe Ruth, circa 1932, home run pose after completing victory burnouts on the frontstretch.
Tony Stewart passes Clint Bowyer in the Sylvania 300. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.
Then the Chase for the Championship hit and, inexplicably, Stewart and his team have come alive. Stewart won his second straight race — the second of the Chase — in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, and in the process, assumed the points lead.
Stewart passed Clint Bowyer as Bowyer’s fuel cell ran dry with two laps remaining, reversing last season’s New Hampshire Chase outcome that saw Bowyer capitalize on Stewart’s empty gas tank.
“It’s amazing that it’s happened like that,” Stewart said. “But Clint was one of the first guys that called last year and, as happy as he was that he won the race, he knew how disappointing it was for us.
“You don’t want to win them that way (on fuel mileage) and you don’t want to see guys lose them that way. This is a sport that guys have a high level of respect for what happens and how it happens. To have a win get away from you that way, it’s disappointing for anybody.
“We may not have been the best car at the end — Clint was just a tick better than us. I definitely did not know he was in a situation to worry about fuel. So the good thing is Darian told us we were two, three laps to the good. I got to run hard all the way to the end.”
To be fair, Stewart’s car was good enough to win the race, and having the mileage to get there was just icing on the cake. He finished second at New Hampshire in July to his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Ryan Newman, in a fuel mileage duel, and won last week at Chicagoland under the same circumstances.
However, the one car that may have been better than his was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24. Gordon led a race-high 78 laps, but ran out of gas coming to pit road under green-flag pit stops with 70 laps remaining. It took the team valuable seconds to get the machine refired, and even then, they did not get the car full of fuel.
That forced Gordon into conservation mode. He backed off down the stretch to avoid running out of gas and settled for a fourth-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle were second and third.
“It’s a bit of a surprise we ran out under green,” Gordon said. “We were expecting to get a couple more laps.
“We’re making great horsepower, but we’re not getting good fuel mileage. But Tony is figuring out a way to do it, so give those guys credit — those guys have the same engines we have and we have to do a better job at it. I have to do a better job at it.”
Defending five-time champion Jimmie Johnson got into a fender war with Kyle Busch with 21 laps remaining. Although neither wrecked, something in Johnson’s steering system was bent, and he finished 18th.
“Today we just didn’t have the speed,” Johnson, who is 29 points behind Stewart, said. “And track position was so important and we didn’t have some pit calls go our way.”
Johnson’s main competition last season, Denny Hamlin, had his second straight frustrating race. His No. 11 Toyota ran out of gas with three laps to go, despite the fact his crew chief, Mike Ford, assured him they could make it the distance. He finished 29th and, after a 31st-place showing last week, is 66 points out of the Chase lead and all but eliminated.
As for the points leader, though, his faith is renewed. “These guys have never quit,” Stewart said. “These guys have never given up and we got a shot at this thing.”