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Jeff Gordon surprises himself by taking the New Hampshire pole, but what the heck happened to Denny Hamlin this time?

Jeff Gordon surprises himself by taking the New Hampshire pole, but what the heck happened to Denny Hamlin this time?

Denny Hamlin: he's called the shot: says he will win Sunday's 300. Can he back it up? Starting 32nd?



   By Mike Mulhern

   Mistakes early in the playoffs can be costly. The odds are against a driver rebounding….unless he's Jimmie Johnson.
   And Denny Hamlin now has a couple of mistakes already to worry about.
   So the early storyline for Sunday's New Hampshire 300 is about how title contenders will be dealing with adversity…while Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski try to open up more daylight.
   And no one more so than Hamlin.
   Jeff Gordon, who crashed out of the playoff opener when his throttle hung, comes here with his back against the wall. He will have to try to match Johnson's 2006 comeback now. And Gordon is starting out at the front of the pack here, after winning the pole for the 300-miler. It was his first pole at a track other than Talladega since 2010.
   That was a bit of a surprise.
   However it was Hamlin who provided the day's biggest head-scratcher.
   Hamlin, who ran out of gas the last lap at Chicagoland last weekend, an inauspicious start to the chase, to be sure, has loudly proclaimed he will avenge that boo-boo by winning here Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET).
    Okay, now he's got to back it up.
    And he will be starting in a hole, after qualifying poorly Friday afternoon, only 32nd fastest -- after leading the day's practice.


  Dale Earnhardt Jr.: sometimes it's hard to figure out where he's coming from...and where he's going in the playoffs (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Hamlin's excuse? That his crew put the wrong air pressure in his tires for qualifying: "We ended up having 'race' pressures…we didn't put our 'qualifying' pressures in.
   "I knew it was something really, really wrong, because the car was bobbling real bad.
   "But it's a simple mistake. We'll rebound from it."
   However, was that the real issue for Hamlin?
   Tire pressures are so critical that drivers and crew chiefs tweak them by as little as half a pound psi. And on short tracks like this the difference in pressures between qualifying and race is considerable: Teams will start a 100-mile race run on very low pressures, because tires will build up pressure as much as 20 psi or more during a long run. Conversely, for qualifying, teams will run very high tire pressures.
    To make a mistake in pressures as Hamlin says, seems incredible, either a gross mistake of some kind, or a trick gone badly awry.
    To put it bluntly, it is almost unbelievable, especially for a star driver and top team like this.


   Now here's a real wild card to keep track of: Brian Vickers. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)   

    So, after that Chicago opener, the lead-up so far to Round Two of the NASCAR championship playoffs, Sunday's New Hampshire 300 here, feels a bit curious.
   First, Stewart spun out the first lap of practice.
   Juan Pablo Montoya spun out a few moments later, and nearly took out teammate Jamie McMurray.
   Meanwhile Johnson – who could very, very easily be going for his seventh straight Sprint Cup championship this fall, not just his sixth in seven years – is once again lightning fast.
   Stewart recovered from that early brain-fade to post the day's third quickest time, and if the real playoff contenders still in the game are dwindling, Stewart is one of them certainly still in the hunt.

   Hamlin isn't the weekend's only question mark.
   So is Gordon.
   Johnson did the improbably in 2006, rallying to the title after finishing a dismal 39th in the opener. Gordon finished 35th at Chicago and comes here dead last among the 12 chase contenders.
    Now this is a good track for Gordon, though he hasn't won here since 1998. However he's a whopping 47 points down in the chase. That's the difference between winning Sunday and finishing last. That's a heck of a lot of ground to pick up, especially against men like Johnson, Stewart and Keselowski.

    Still, Gordon's performance Friday shows he's still hopeful, and it may seem a bit early to start writing off chase contenders.
   "I think we surprised ourselves with this pole," Gordon said. "We didn't expect this. And it is certainly good timing."
   Gordon and others have complained about the 'feel' of these tires, first used here in July, when Hamlin dominated and Kasey Kahne won.
   "I don't agree with the tire here; I don't think the balance is right," Gordon said.
   "But it's here, and we'll deal with it."
   He ran sixth here in July.

    Hamlin had the fastest car in July, though a pit stop miscue the last time around cost him, and opened the door for Kasey Kahne.
    That, and running out of fuel at Chicago, and Friday's air pressure issues, and half a dozen other things that have happened this season have raised questions about the entire Joe Gibbs operation. Hamlin and Kyle Busch are typically fast,  but bedeviled with issues that almost seem like quality control problems.
    Speed, Hamlin concedes, just isn't enough these days.

    And a big question at this track, for everyone: gas mileage. Remember how some of the races at this flat one-mile have finished – with a gas mileage run. http://bit.ly/PHv8OV  and  http://bit.ly/VllJz8

    Hamlin wasn't the only one disappointed Friday. So was Matt Kenseth. And Johnson himself will be back in row 10 for the start.
    Kyle Busch, who hasn't done much really this season and who missed the playoff cut, will be on the front row with Gordon. But this has been a problematic track for him.
    So at the moment the man to really keep a close eye on here looks to be Stewart, on the second row.


  Jimmie Johnson: the eyes show it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Here's a benchmark for the chase: Johnson's charge to the title in 2006 followed a disastrous 39th in the opener, plus a crash at Talladega in Race Four. However to win he had to score a victory and four seconds in the last six races….and watch his rivals hit with some misfortune of their own.
    Spotting Johnson any kind of lead and trying to chase him down, particularly as determined as Johnson appears right now, is akin to trying to chase down Secretariat or Seattle Slew.
   Roger Penske is on the mark when he calls Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus "the gold standard" in this sport.   
  "That is a huge compliment," Johnson says.
   "With his experience in motorsports and business, to get a compliment like that from him is an honor, to be honest with you. 
    "I have looked up to him for years and years.  My childhood idol, Rick Mears, raced for him.  I always had that dream of racing at Indy for Penske.
     "I'm very happy with the compliment, and hopefully we can maintain that gold standard."



   Brad Keselowski: Can he and crew chief Paul Wolfe trip up Jimmie Johnson in this year's championship playoffs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Hamlin seems to be a bit on the defensive. But then he had the fastest car here in July, only to lose after a pit stop miscommunication about tires during the final pit stop. He fell to 13th after that stop and could only get back to second.
     "We didn't finish it off, but those are mistakes we all learn from," Hamlin says. "So as long as we don't have that flub again, there's no reason why we won't be in contention with 50 laps to go again.
    "Given our history here, given how we ran the first practice, and hopefully how we run tomorrow, I expect to win.  If I don't
win, then I feel like something has happened to hamper us.  
    "But this is not about the best driver in the fastest car anymore.  If it were, we would have had three wins going into the chase and we would have finished fourth in Chicago and still had the point lead.
   "Instead we're 15 points back…because this is a team sport.
    "As much as you say 'That's the best car,' it's not a guarantee anymore.
    "That's why Chicago was a bit disappointing -- because we wanted to maintain or extend our lead there…and then when we come here, where nothing is a given, we could look to extend our lead….and then 'damage control' at Dover.
    "If we have a bad race here…"
    Hamlin realizes Dover is almost an ace in the hole for Johnson. "But I think there are more cars to race than the 48 this particular chase.  There are probably five to six guys who are really going to be strong at every track."  


  Regan Smith: last year's Southern 500 winner, says he might not return to Barney Visser's Chevy team in 2013 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Johnson, despite Hamlin's vow here, seems supremely confident in his own championship game plans.
    "You certainly put yourself out on a limb if it doesn't happen, and draw a lot of attention to yourself during the weekend," Johnson said of Hamlin.
    "If you back it up, you are going to look like a super hero."
    Wondering right now just when the last time Johnson himself ran out of gas so dramatically….
   Yes, Hamlin is one of the favorites here, of course. It's a good track for him, just like Phoenix and Richmond, sister tracks.
   "He was really strong here in July…. I've kind of put him down as the favorite….but I know we were awfully strong too," Johnson said.
   "We will be up there in the mix.  We keep getting top-three's in this stage of the game and I will be really happy."



   Jeff Gordon: ready for the fork? or can he really pull off a miracle in the playoffs? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    One thing about this place, Johnson points out, it that races here are fairly short. Plus, it's tough to pass. "You've really got to come off the truck your first laps on," he says. "Qualify well, and then stay up front; clean air is so important here."
   It is not a good track to have to play catch-up.
   And gas mileage? "This track can really be challenging from a fuel mileage standpoint," Johnson says. "We have seen plenty of that."

   And playing catch-up in the chase, particularly against 11 other contenders, is all but impossible.
   Johnson, in his 2006 title run, was ragged, with DNFs; but rivals made enough mistakes themselves to let him back in the hunt.
    "If it's that type of year….." Johnson says warily. "But at this point everybody is really afraid of a poor finish."
   Johnson says he's not anticipating having a real good understanding of how the playoffs are going until the tour his Kansas (Oct. 21) or Martinsville (Oct. 28).
    "Right now, my mind- set is top-threes. If we can keep knocking out top-threes and then get to race six or seven, we can see what we've got to do then…and we will be in great shape.
    "You don't want to be behind, chasing, at that point."
     It was at Martinsville last fall that Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski were both knocked out of title contention.
    Jimmie Johnson trivia here: he is the only driver to finish the chase opener down deep after the first race who has rallied back to win the title.
    More Jimmie Johnson trivia: he's a good finisher at Dover, next week's stop, and a place where challengers Brad Keselowski and Hamlin are worried about. "I feel Dover is a good opportunity for us, to get some points on them."
   Johnson says he expected Keselowski to be strong at Chicago, "and he certainly was. 
    "Here I look to Denny, and what he did in the spring. 
    "Next week I feel like Jeff Gordon is going to be a big threat, though he got off to a bad start at Chicago." 
   Johnson's game plan for these next few weeks is plain and simple: "I want to come out of here with the points lead and hopefully we can distance ourselves from the guys."
   To wrestle command of the playoffs like that would give Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus a big mental edge.
   "Running up front, the top-three or top-five, especially early-to- midway through the race, and not pushing the issue," he says are keys. "When you are back in 15th or 20th, it's cut throat. And at a track this fast, a small mistake happens and it could take you right out of the race. 
    "Running up front you really can have the best chance of controlling your own destiny."

    Of course Keselowski has his own view of all that. And Keselowski has his own bag of tricks, as he showed at Chicago.
    "He certainly has a great feel for the race car, and can lead his team to make the right adjustments," Johnson says of Keselowski. "That is key.
   "The relationship he has with Paul Wolfe is a big part of their success too.  People at times underestimate the power of the people…."
   But nobody in this sport underestimates Jimmie Johnson.



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