By Jeff Wolfe
It’s one thing to say you’re going to do something.
It’s another thing to make a statement about what you’re going to do, then do it.
And then again, it’s quite another thing to do it in dominating fashion.
Denny Hamlin came from 32nd position at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and led 193 of the final 206 laps en route to his fifth win of the season. It was the second of ten races in NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship, the sport’s version of the playoffs, and the win put Hamlin seven points behind points leader and Sunday’s second-place finisher Jimmie Johnson.
Hamlin would be in the points lead if not for running out of gas on the last lap of last week’s race at Chicagoland. He was set to finish ninth, only to drop to 16th when he ran out of gas.
But he knew the No. 11 team of the Joe Gibbs Racing wasn’t out of the Chase picture because of one mediocre finish. After the race, Hamlin took to Twitter and wrote, “This is Week 1 of 10. We will win next week.” [Editor’s Note: Hamlin later stated that this was not a guarantee, like some other media members have written that the tweet was]
After qualifying, that statement didn’t look like it held much water as he was 32nd fastest. But it was apparent early Sunday that Hamlin was fast as he picked his way through the field. He reached first place for the first time at lap 94 of the 300-lap, 317.4-mile race.
“I knew 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. “It’s all those other things I talked about that you can’t control that can keep you out of Victory Lane. It’s the untimely cautions, things like that.
“For me that was the most nerve-wracking part; let’s not find a way to lose, because I knew we had the fastest car today. You know, I’ve obviously got a great knack for this racetrack, so for me, it crosses your mind, and then it’s extra motivation in my mind to prove yourself right.”
It was the second career win for Hamlin at New Hampshire, the 22nd overall for him and the 100th win for Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin finished second in the summer race at New Hampshire in July, so he was hoping for more good things Sunday.
“You know, you look at how many realistic shots we had at winning races, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have like six or seven or eight wins in this season based off of, you know, just obscene stuff happened that took us out of Victory Lane,” Hamlin said. “That being said, we as a team have won some races. My team won it for me in Atlanta and all of those things. So the vindication, it’s like, I always say, no track owes you anything. You’ve got to go out there and you have to perform and you have to do it yourself.”
While Hamlin kept about a five-second gap on Johnson for much of the race, the contenders had one last chance to challenge Hamlin when the fourth and final caution came out for debris with 28 laps remaining. The first seven cars did not pit, but Hamlin was so fast, the strategy at the end didn’t matter. Hamlin knew the car would be fast on the slightly used tires because the same thing happened about 20 laps earlier in the race.
“We had a similar run like that at the end of the race,” Hamlin said. “We both had 20-lap green-flag runs leading into the final caution. So it was a no-brainer from (crew chief Darian Grubb). He even told me, you can come in if you want, but we are not going to do anything, we are just going to sit here behind the wall. It was a no-brainer for me after we tried that early in the race with no tires to take none at the end.”
Johnson knew his only shot at Hamlin was on the final restart.
“If I could have gone into the corner on the outside of him and kind of pinned him down a little bit, I may have had a chance to get by,” Johnson said. “But once I got into the turn, there’s paving seams in the road, and I got my right sides on a paving seam; and I couldn’t turn under it and I was kind of stuck on it; the 24 (Jeff Gordon) got close to me. I had a little bit of hope for just, you know, quarter of a lap there. And then it was like, uh-oh, don’t lose second. And then pulled away from Jeff and got going from there.”
The rest of the top-10 in front of a crowd of 98,000 after Johnson was Gordon in third, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, Brian Vickers and Ryan Newman.
Stewart won this race last year in en route to the title. And he looked strong early, leading 38 laps. Then, before Hamlin could work his way to the front, Kyle Busch took the lead for 48 laps. But after lap 94, the only time Hamlin surrendered the lead was on the recycling of field during green flag pit stops.
Then in Victory Lane, Hamlin recycled bit of history with an imitation of baseball legend Babe Ruth’s called shot at Wrigley Field.
“Definitely there was many people that called their shot with championships ahead of me,” Hamlin said. “So I’m just a small, small little bug on the windshield.”
Hamlin will get a chance to retake the points lead next Sunday at Dover, in a 2 p.m. start on ESPN.