Hamlin decimates field, scores fifth win of NASCAR season
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.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro