Denny Hamlin: eat my dust (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
He was on the hot seat, with that pre-race boast calling the win, and then with Friday's poor qualifying run. But Denny Hamlin delivered big here Sunday, winning the New Hampshire 300, over new NASCAR points leader Jimmie Johnson.
However the 2-1/2-hour race, Round Two in the 10-race playoffs, was another less than thrilling event. Hamlin completely dominated the warm, sunny afternoon, as strong here as Johnson was at Chicago in Round One.
"Doesn't hurt to have a little confidence in your team. We made a few mistakes the last couple of weeks, but we came back today," Hamlin said, who started 32nd and moved quickly through the field.
Hamlin ran out of gas the last lap at Chicago and finished 16th. This win helped pull him back near the top of the points.
Johnson thus opens the playoffs with a pair of seconds, ominous considering how strong he runs at Dover, Del., next weekend's tour top.
Hamlin, who led 193 of the 300 laps and was nearly three second ahead at the finish, has openly worried about the concrete Dover track, where he doesn't typically run well.
Nevertheless Hamlin's win here, the 100th Cup tour win for team owner Joe Gibbs, a rare plateau, keeps him ahead of everyone else so far in tour wins this season, with five. "Today the best car won," Hamlin said.
Denny Hamlin's crew celebrates (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"We had a great car, just not an amazing car like Denny," Johnson said. "He could go when he needed to, when he wanted to. He had everyone covered.
"We knew he'd be tough. But we've got some good ones coming up. The only one that has me concerned -- like everyone -- is Talladega.
"We've only left about seven points on the table so far. And we average about a top-10 here, so to beat our average is good."
Johnson got a last chance to do something with Hamlin when the last caution came out 25 miles to go.
"If I could have gone into the corner on the outside of him and pinned him down a little bit, I may have had a chance to get by," Johnson said.
"But once I got into the turn, I got my right-sides on a paving seam, and I couldn't turn under it.
"I had a little hope, for just a quarter of a lap. Then it was like 'Uh-oh, don't lose second.'"
"Denny was just phenomenal today," sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski.
Jeff Gordon, who crashed out in Round One, when his throttle hung, finished a strong third, though lost more ground to the tour leader.
"It's just a shame what happened to us in Chicago last week, otherwise we'd have two straight top-fives," Gordon said. "There's no question that we can get ourselves back into this thing. But we're 45 points down, and we'll have to have some help, and get some wins. It's still going to take a miracle for us to win the championship."
The race was surprisingly uneventful, with three cautions for debris, and no incidents, in fact very few bumps.
While Johnson and Gordon and fifth-place finisher Kasey Kahne made it a very good day for team owner Rick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the fourth Hendrick driver in the chase, never really recovered from a bad pit stop early, and finished 13th.
On the other hand, the day was another disappointment for Ford teammates Greg Biffle (18th) and Matt Kenseth 14th), putting them in a hole in the chase.
Kevin Harvick also suffered through a mediocre day. finishing an unspectacular 11th.
Playoff drivers took the top seven spots. Joey Logano was top-finishing non-chaser.
Kyle Busch, who didn't make the chase, ran strong early but something went wrong with his car midway, maybe the engine, and he struggled in 28th.
Denny Hamlin's fifth win of the season: "We're on a good run." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The day was perfect, blue skies and 70 degrees, after overnight rain. NASCAR called the crowd 98,000, which may have been a bit generous.
However the day was not perfect for Ford's Biffle and Kenseth, and the two lost more ground in the playoffs.
"It was just a case of brakes," Biffle said. "I'm a terrible driver when it comes to taking care of the brakes.
"It's got to be me, because we've done everything under the sun. Halfway through I lost my brakes, and that's about all I could do.
"It would haul like crazy... but then I just had to keep giving it up."
"It seems we struggle here as a company a little," Kenseth said. "We were pretty good in the beginning, though 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.
"Since the introduction of the COT car (2007) it has been a struggle here. I think Greg won one time because of some good stops and strategy, but overall it's a bad track for us."
That Biffle was in 2008.
Chevy teams had a six-race winning streak at this track until Hamlin ended that here Sunday.
Denny Hamlin could handle everything here Sunday but the Victory Lobster, which crew chief Darian Grubb had to wrestle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Hamlin started deep in the field: "We had a goal of trying to get to the top-10 by lap 100. Just took my time getting through traffic."
It didn't even take him that long to make it; he was on point at lap 94, and untouchable the rest of the way.
"Once we got to about lap 50 and working our way to sixth, I knew we had the winning car.
"It's just it seems every time you have the dominant car, something keeps you out of victory lane. Richmond wasn't even close; we were just toying with those guys…and obviously weather changes the outcome.
"We would be on a heck of a run here, with about four out of five, had that weather not bit us at Richmond."
Dover however is a worry: "I'm going to be optimistic. Darian and my team have been working on that track for the last few weeks, working on a setup that would make me comfortable.
"The car is going to be good; I just have to have an open mind when I get out there for the first green flag run and have faith that I can do it.
"All I can do is have a positive outlook.
"We've been more cold than hot….but I have had some races where I was pretty competitive.
"People have their Achilles Heel, and for me Dover has been it.
"I have won in Nationwide there somehow; everyone else must have crashed.
"I just need to figure out what it takes in Cup."
Blue skies, a great day for racing....but it was Denny Hamlin in a runaway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)