By Reid Spencer (NASCAR Wire Service, Sept. 23, 2012).
LOUDON, N.H. — Denny Hamlin called his shot — and gave the rest of the field a handicap before he fulfilled his own prophecy.
After running out of fuel in the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race last Sunday at Chicagoland, Hamlin promised via his Twitter feed that he would win Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
It was no contest. Though he started deep in the field, Hamlin drove his vastly superior car to a 2.675-second victory over runner-up Jimmie Johnson. The victory was Hamlin’s fifth of the season and the 22nd of his Cup career.
After taking the checkered flag, Hamlin parked his car beneath the flag stand, climbed out, raised his arm and pointed to the grandstand in a gesture designed to recall Babe Ruth’s called shot in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series.
An avid fan of sports other than racing, Hamlin claimed the 100th Cup victory for Joe Gibbs Racing, a team owned and named for the former Washington Redskins coach who won 248 NFL games and three Super Bowls. JGR is the sixth team to achieve that milestone.
Pole-sitter Jeff Gordon ran third to keep his faint championship hopes alive. Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart ran fourth through seventh, as Chase drivers swept the top seven spots.
Hamlin said he used the promise to win more as a way to reassure his fans that New Hampshire would provide a comeback from Chicagoland. Early in the race, however, he knew he had a car capable of fulfilling the promise.
“I knew, once we got to about lap 50 and started working our way to the sixth or seventh position — I knew that we had the winning car,” Hamlin said. “It’s all those other things that you can’t control that can keep you out of Victory Lane. It’s the untimely caution, 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, and I’ve obviously got a great knack for this racetrack.”
Hamlin led 193 of 300 laps at the 1.058-mile track. Clearly, Hamlin was the class of the field, but it wasn’t obvious to Johnson where he was getting beaten.
“It was hard to tell,” said Johnson, who snagged the Chase lead by one point over Keselowski. “He had a lot of speed in his car and seemed to be able to go when he needed to and wanted to. It was just a great job on their behalf. We were the next best car, finished second and passed a lot of cars ourselves today (from the 20th starting position).
“We knew based on the (July) race that those guys were going to be tough, and they certainly were. . . . I kept waiting for him to make a mistake. He did a good job.
Added Gordon: “I don’t think that thing bobbled all day.”
Hamlin, who climbed to third in the standings (seven points behind Johnson) started 32nd because of a mistake with tire pressures during Friday’s time trials, but before the race had reached Lap 100, the driver of the No. 11 Toyota had the lead. Hamlin passed Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch on Lap 94 and proceeded to dust the field the rest of the way.
Hamlin held a lead of more than seven seconds over Johnson when NASCAR called the third debris caution of the race, and fourth overall, on Lap 272. The yellow bunched the field, but it didn’t matter, as Hamlin sped away after a restart on Lap 278 and easily held off Johnson, who finished second for the second straight race.
1. (32) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 300, $273,166.
2. (20) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 300, $204,796.
3. (1) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 300, $179,171.
4. (12) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 300, $141,074.
5. (6) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 300, $113,135.
6. (15) Brad Keselowski, Dodge, 300, $135,780.
7. (3) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 300, $149,360.
8. (18) Joey Logano, Toyota, 300, $98,185.
9. (4) Brian Vickers, Toyota, 300, $94,985.
10. (8) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 300, $128,968.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 116.81 mph.
Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 43 Mins, 02 Secs.
Margin of Victory: 2.675 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 4 for 17 laps.
Lead Changes: 17 among 10 drivers.
Lap Leaders: J. Gordon 1-3; T. Stewart 4-41; J. Gordon 42; C. Mears 43; J. Gordon 44-45; Kyle Busch 46-93; D. Hamlin 94-107; K. Kahne 108; J. Johnson 109; M. Kenseth 110; B. Keselowski 111-112; D. Hamlin 113-179; B. Vickers 180-184; D. Hamlin 185-244; J. Johnson 245; J. Gordon 246; B. Keselowski 247-248; D. Hamlin 249-300.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): D. Hamlin 4 times for 193 laps; Kyle Busch 1 time for 48 laps; T. Stewart 1 time for 38 laps; J. Gordon 4 times for 7 laps; B. Vickers 1 time for 5 laps; B. Keselowski 2 times for 4 laps; J. Johnson 2 times for 2 laps; K. Kahne 1 time for 1 lap; M. Kenseth 1 time for 1 lap; C. Mears 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 12 in Points: J. Johnson – 2,096; B. Keselowski – 2,095; D. Hamlin – 2,089; T. Stewart – 2,086; K. Kahne – 2,081; C. Bowyer – 2,081; D. Earnhardt Jr. – 2,070; K. Harvick – 2,065; G. Biffle – 2,063; M. Truex Jr. – 2,062; M. Kenseth – 2,061; J. Gordon – 2,051.