After running out of fuel on the last lap at the Chicagoland Speedway the previous Sunday, Denny Hamlin predicted he would bounce back and win NASCAR’s next race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Sure enough, Hamlin proved there was substance to his claim as he dominated last weekend’s Sprint Cup race in New Hampshire. Hamlin led most of the way and ran away on his own at the end to beat Jimmie Johnson by 2.5 seconds.
“You don’t want to sound too cocky but I knew what we were capable of,” Hamlin remarked. “Our car was extremely strong and I have a really good knack for this racetrack. It doesn’t hurt to have a little confidence in your team. I know we made a couple of big mistakes in the last two weeks, but I felt we were fast enough to make it up and we were. Everyone is working so hard in the shop to build these race cars. They’re lightning fast race cars.”
Hamlin’s win was the 100th Sprint Cup victory for Joe Gibbs’s team. Gibbs last won the championship with Tony Stewart driving Chevrolets in 2002 and ‘05. Gibbs’s three-car team switched to Toyota in 2009 and Hamlin battled for the championship with Jimmie Johnson in 2010 winning eight races and finishing second in points to Johnson. This year may see a repeat of Hamlin and Johnson’s 2010 championship duel as Johnson took the point lead after finishing second for the second week in a row.
“He had a lot of speed in his car,” Johnson said of Hamlin in New Hampshire. “They did a great job but we were the next best car and I passed a lot of cars today. We knew based on the spring race here that those guys were going to be real tough today and they certainly were. But we’ve got some really good tracks for us coming up starting next weekend at Dover. I’m really excited about that.”
Each of the top seven finishers in New Hampshire were ‘Chase’ contenders. Jeff Gordon started from the pole and finished third followed by Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. With eight races to go Johnson leads the Chase with 2096 points. Chicagoland winner Keselowski is second, one point behind, with Hamlin third, seven points behind Johnson.
After losing a lot of ground in Chicago the previous week where a stuck throttle put him into the wall, Jeff Gordon was happy to finish third in New Hampshire. He’s hanging on in 12th place in the Chase, 45 points behind leader Johnson.
“It’s going to be tough to gain on guys like the number 48 and the number 11,” Gordon said. “But a top three is a really great effort for us. We gained a lot on a lot of guys. The best the car was all day long was right there at the end and that’s all you can ask for. We didn’t have a car that could win. I felt we were a fourth- or fifth-place car, so to come home third is pretty good.”
Gordon said there are too many races left to concede the championship but suggested Hendrick team-mate Johnson is going to be hard to beat. “It’s still early,” Gordon observed. “Right now, everybody is racing for wins and the points fall where they may. I thought Jimmie (below) and the number 48 [car] did a great job today to come from deep in the field. That was a great effort. That’s the kind of effort that wins championships, so we’ll see where it takes them.”
The ‘Monster Mile’ at Dover, Delaware comes next followed by the high-banked 2.66-mile Talladega superspeedway. At the moment Johnson, Hamlin and Keselowski are the favourites to win this year’s championship with Stewart also ranking as a serious contender. If either Hamlin or Keselowski can pull it off they will become first-time Sprint Cup champions.