Rivals: The pressure's on

Last modified: 9/22/2012 12:00:00 AM
LOUDON - Denny Hamlin spoke. Now his competitors are responding.

Hamlin, the leader going into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, made waves in the NASCAR community following his disappointing 16th-place finish in the first Chase race at Chicagoland. Hamlin felt his fans needed a pick-me-up, and he didn't sell them short.

"This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week," he wrote on Twitter.

It was a bold move. And the drivers who hope to prove him wrong were listening.

"I guess he enjoys pressure, because that certainly puts a lot of pressure on you," said Clint Bowyer, a New Hampshire Motor Speedway winner in 2007 and 2010. "I don't know. Who knows? I'm going to call his bluff."

Hamlin has reason to be optimistic. He's one of the Sprint Cup's best drivers on shorter tracks, and he's averaged better than a top-10 finish at the Magic Mile. Loudon was going to be a target for him, announced or not.

But he did announce it, and as Matt Kenseth said, it's a move that pays off more for some people than it does for others.

"No, not at all," he responded when asked if he had ever pulled a similar move. "Some people are like that and it works out really well for them, it builds confidence and all that. I've just never been like that. I like to try to do it first or else I just end up disappointed."

The overall mood was laid-back, with Jimmie Johnson saying he had no problem with the tweet - so long as Hamlin backs it up.

"You certainly put yourself out on a limb if it doesn't happen and draw a lot of attention to yourself during the weekend," he said. "If you back it up, you're going to look like a superhero."

Hamlin stood by his confidence, though he admitted the commotion surprised him.

"I feel like I can go win each and every one of them," he said. "Really, it's nothing more than that. It was really meant to be nothing more than just, 'Hey, we'll get them next week. We'll win it next week.' People were just taking it a little further than that."

 Coming back

Next year will look like the past several at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

NASCAR decided to keep two races at Loudon for 2013, continuing what's been the norm since 1997.

The first race, the New Hampshire 300, will be July 14 and the second, the Sylvania 300, will be Sept. 22, meaning Loudon keeps its status as a stop in the Chase for the Cup.

NHMS has proven to be one of the more unpredictable tracks in the Sprint Cup circuit, as each of the past nine races have been won by different drivers.

"The drivers know this is a great place to compete and the fans know it's an amazing place to watch a race," NHMS General Manager Jerry Gappens said.

 N.H. connection

Mike Olsen and Frank Stoddard Jr., old buddies from North Haverhill and Woodsville High School, will become the first driver-owner tandem from New Hampshire to race in the Sprint Cup series when Olsen takes the wheel in tomorrow's Sylvania 300.

Olsen, a 44-year-old who won championships in what is now the K&N Pro Series East tour in 2001 and 2006, qualified on Stoddard's owner points and will start 42nd. Olsen is the grandson of the late driver Stub Fadden, who competed on the East tour from 1987-2003, winning four races.

Stoddard is in his second year as a Cup owner after serving as a crew chief for Sprint Cup drivers Jeff Burton, Ward Burton and Boris Said.

 Moffitt on the pole

Brett Moffitt is picking up where he left off.

Moffitt raced his way to the pole for today's K&N Pro Series East G-Oil 100, edging out Sergio Pena and Kyle Larson, who were second and third, respectively. Corey LaJoie and Chase Elliott will start fourth and fifth, respectively.

Moffitt, who posted a speed of 128.467 mph, won the race at Loudon last year and has conquered nearly all of the tracks the series has visited. The points leader has nine top-10s and two wins through 10 races so far, and the 20-year-old said he was confident he'd keep the streak going at NHMS.

"We had a really good car here, we always do when we come here," Moffitt said. "Last year we won the race, so hopefully we can repeat that."

Pena will look for the good starting spot to give him a boost in the standings, as he's winless and currently ninth.

"We were looking for the pole there. We were really fast in practice," he said. "Of course, Brett had to steal it from us."

 Lia on top

Donny Lia's won twice at NHMS in his Modified career. After securing his best starting position ever at the track, he might be in line for a third.

Lia earned his first Loudon pole for the Whelen Modified Tour F.W. Webb 100, beating out points leader Doug Coby and Ronnie Silk, who won the last two Modified poles at the track. Ryan Preece and Ted Christopher were fourth and fifth, respectively, while Sprint Cup veteran Ryan Newman was sixth.

"Today was just a perfect day for us," said Lia, who posted a speed of 129.763 mph. "Really good car. The motor feels good, and it's really getting through the corners well."

Lia's fifth in the standings, but a win would be a good omen. His other Loudon victories, in 2009 and '07, came during championship seasons.

For Coby, who leads Preece by nine points and has four wins this season, starting high was a relief, as he wasn't able to get his car to the speed he expected until the second lap.

"I had to drive it harder on the second lap to actually get in the groove where I wanted to be," he said. "Good run for us, really happy to be started up front. Hopefully, that's a safe place to be for a while."

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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