LOUDON, N.H. -- This was Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb's race to lose.
And sure enough, with 65 laps left in Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, they lost it. But the speed and deftness with which Hamlin sliced through the field in the final laps at the 1.058-mile track left both driver and crew chief smiling and able to deal with second place on a day when everyone knew their No. 11 Toyota was the car to beat.
Oh, so close
Denny Hamlin fell back to 13th after a four-tire stop but he put on a clinic in the final laps of the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 and drove up to second-place, challenging Kasey Kahne for the victory.
Hamlin was in the lead when the caution came out with 65 to go. As he came to pit road, he thought he asked for a two-tire change. Grubb, his crew chief, wanted to go for two tires and the quicker stop that would entail but thought mistakenly that Hamlin had asked for a four-tire change.
The four-tire stop dropped them from the lead to 13th on the ensuing restart. Hamlin put on a driving show reminiscent of Tony Stewart's run at Homestead at the end of last season that sealed Stewart's championship, except Stewart won that race. Hamlin ran out of time and laps to win this one, forcing the No. 11 team to settle for second when Hamlin could not quite run down winner Kasey Kahne in his No. 5 Chevrolet.
"It was one of those deals where Denny asked for more grip. We had 75 laps on our left-sides there and we had worn them out pretty good on the run before that. I took that to mean he wanted all the grip he could get, so we gave him four tires," Grubb said.
Hamlin added: "We made our bed when we took those four tires. Darian wanted to take two, but I told him I just needed tires and that was it -- and he took that to mean I needed four tires. That little bit of miscommunication turned it into a second-place finish. You never know what have happened with the No. 5 on that last restart if we had only taken two. The No. 5 still could have won it. But we had a great car at the end and at least made it real interesting for the fans."
As Hamlin toweled off shortly after climbing from the car on a steamy New England afternoon, he and Grubb were able to grab each other by the shoulder, smile and even share a laugh. In that one instant, it seemed obvious they shook off the entire blunder. Grubb, who missed practices and qualifying this weekend after his wife, Yolanda, gave birth to their second child last Monday, said the dual focus of driver and crew chief is on the bigger picture.
"He still put a great show on for the fans and got a great points finish for us," Grubb said. "Now we've got a really good package to come back here with for the Chase."
Even with Grubb absent, Hamlin owned the fastest car during each of the last two practices leading up to the race and qualified third for the race. No one came close to leading as many as the 150 laps Hamlin did during the 301-lap event.
"It was impressive the way he came through the field," Grubb said. "The car definitely was dominant -- all day and all weekend. I can't say enough for these guys for how they stepped it up. We really showed the depth of our team.
"Denny made it up to us there at the end. We messed it up and he still gave us a shot to win it. We still almost ran [Kahne] down at the end. It's frustrating -- but we came here with our No. 1 goal being to plan for the Chase race here [on Sept. 23]. That's race No. 2 here. It was a whole new setup for Denny and for the [Joe] Gibbs [Racing] guys to run here -- something that I'm familiar with -- and now we've got our speed and our setup and we're going to be ready to go next time."
That was what had Hamlin beaming afterward as well. It didn't hurt that he jumped two spots in the point standings to fifth and already owns two race wins this season, virtually guaranteeing him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup with seven races left before the 12-driver Chase field is set.
"I'm proud of our team. This is the best car I've had here, and we're going to win the one that counts when we come back," Hamlin said. "If we're not wrecking, we're in contention to win every single week. That's all I can ask for from our team. I feel like this year is setting up for a strong finish.
"That's all I had. That's as hard as I can drive. I just came up about five car lengths too short. I feel like if I could have gotten to him, I could've made it at least a little interesting. I just couldn't get there at the end."
He said it was impossible for him to get mad at Grubb, and vice versa, Grubb said the same about Hamlin. Neither blamed this being their first year together on the admittedly costly miscommunication.
"It could happen with anyone. It could happen with someone I've worked with for six or seven years and we had a miscommunication," Hamlin said. "I'll be a little bit more clear next time. But he gave me a car that was really fast. It's hard to complain about anything.
"Obviously our car was fast. You just can't overcome a full straightaway or whatever we were back [following the final restart]. I think we were behind by more than six seconds at one point. We just didn't have enough laps. That was the bottom line.
"So we came up short, but it's days like these that you can build on. We're going to be back up here in just a couple of months when it really counts, and that's when you really want to win. Now we know we have something we can race 'em with."
Hamlin did admit that he went from a sense of desperation to one of near elation the final 65 laps, as he passed 11 of the 12 cars that restarted in front of him following the final caution.
"You try to be as optimistic as possible. But you know in your head that that's a death sentence, basically, for us," Hamlin said. "I honestly didn't think we'd get back to where we did. Kasey stretched out so far ahead of us when we were 10th that I was thinking maybe we'd get back into the top five. Then I thought maybe we'd get to the top three. But we made up some big ground there at the end. We just needed four or five more laps. We just needed to get within striking distance -- because I was going to run him over.
"Once you kind of get an idea that you're not going to win, you can at least make it interesting. I'm sure everyone in the crowd was looking around at each other and asking, 'I don't know if he's got enough time or not.' But that was like back in the short-track days when we used to dominate every track we went to. We would just cut through the field with ease. You don't get many opportunities to do that in Cup because we're all so equal nowadays. So when you've got a car like that, it kind of brings you back to those days. And that part of it is fun."
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