Hamlin outlasts Larson for Cup win at NHMS

  • Driver Denny Hamlin celebrates after winning the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Sunday. BELOW: Hamlin smokes his tires as he passes fans at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. AP photos

  • Driver Denny Hamlin smokes his tires as he passes fans after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 301 auto race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

For the Monitor
Published: 7/16/2017 11:14:18 PM

LOUDON – The sight in Denny Hamlin’s rearview mirror was an ominous one, and even worse, it was growing. Kyle Larson was chasing Hamlin and his No. 11 FedEx Toyota over the final laps of the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, stalking the leader, cutting into his lead, and waiting to make a move.

Hamlin, however, had a crucial advantage. He had time on his side. And he needed every second of it.

Hamlin outlasted Larson in a sprint to the finish Sunday, taking the victory for his third career win at Loudon and – most importantly – his first of this season, essentially sealing his chances of making the NASCAR playoffs when September rolls around.

“We definitely needed a win for the organization and for myself, just to get some momentum going,” said Hamlin, who won the race in a backup car after crashing during practice on Friday. “This is awesome. ... It’s a total team effort. For them to do the extra work to get us that engine change before qualifying, it was key. That pays off.”

The victory ended a 20-race winless streak for Joe Gibbs Racing, and fittingly, it came at a track that has always seemed to come up big for Gibbs and Hamlin when they’ve needed it most.

“As far as I’m concerned I think we should race here 10 times a year,” joked Hamlin, who has nine top-fives in 23 NHMS races,

Martin Truex Jr. finished third, while Matt Kenseth was fourth and Kevin Harvick took fifth. Daniel Suarez, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top 10.

Hamlin aced a restart on the 267th lap, moving from fourth to first by the 268th to gain control of the race. From there, it was a matter of holding off what appeared to be the inevitable. Hamlin’s car was running slower laps than Larson’s and Truex Jr.’s behind him, he had lapped traffic in front of him, and the disparity was showing as his pursuers shaved hundredths and tenths of seconds off his lead.

With a 1.529-second lead and only 26 laps to go, Hamlin’s advantage seemed safe. But in the closing laps, Larson fought back. The 24-year-old in the Target Chevy with the bull’s-eye on his car put one on the suddenly vulnerable leader, trimming the lead down to .616 seconds with three laps left, then .531 with two to go.

Larson hadn’t needed many laps to get close, but he needed a few more – perhaps one more – to catch up. Hamlin, running the same crisp laps under pressure that led him to victory in 2007 and ‘12, kept Larson at a distance, then withstood a final jaunt through traffic to beat the field to the finish line and set off a much-needed burnout and victory lap.

“We executed nicely, made no mistakes and capitalized when other guys faltered a little bit,” Hamlin said. “It just seemed like we were able to get off the car pretty good, and really, I just ran kind of a pace there. ... Just (did) everything right to win the race.”

“It’s relief,” Hamlin’s crew chief, Michael Wheeler, said. “We weren’t the fastest car all race long. We had a top-five car. There was probably one or two guys a little bit faster, but we were in contention all day and made it happen.”

Larson – a runner-up seven times this year – felt he had enough time to make the pass, but saw his progress stalled when he needed to make his biggest move.

“I thought so,” Larson said. “I was catching him a couple tenths of a lap there, and then it seemed like when I got kind of close there, I don’t know, within four or five car lengths at the end, my lap times kind of evened off a little bit with him.”

Larson fell one spot shy of a worst-to-first finish, as he started in 40th and last place after failing post-qualifying inspection, one week after an infraction and penalty at Kentucky bumped him out of the points lead.

“This is the third time we’ve had to start last and drove up to second,” Larson said. “(It was) another hard-fought race. … It’s been a tough couple of weeks through the tech line.”

The day’s best car belonged to Truex Jr., who led 137 of the 301 laps and won the race’s first stage after 75 laps, but ruptured a tire on the 219th go-round. He got back on the lead lap by the 230th and was back in the lead by the 247th, but he was passed by Matt Kenseth on the 261st and never led after the final restart.

“We had a really good (car) for most of the race, and led a bunch of laps and got that flat tire, and kind of got off sequence,” he said. “We still had a shot, but on the last restart we got the inside lane there, restarted third. It wasn’t the place to be, obviously.”

Afternoons that seemed promising fizzled into disappointments for two of the race’s biggest names. Kyle Busch won the second stage and led 95 laps, but saw his chances for victory derailed when he was busted for not one but two pit road speeding penalties, the first knocking him back a lap at lap 238, and the second doing the same at lap 264. In the top 10 at the time of the second infraction, he slipped to a 12th-place finish.

“You hate it when something comes up like it did today,” team owner Joe Gibbs said. “Kyle’s going to come roaring back from that. I think he feels like each and every weekend he’s got a chance.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., winless in 34 career starts at Loudon, seemed poised to break the hex when he went into the lap 267 restart with the lead after a cycle of pit stops. He had enough gas to finish the race, but struggled on the restart and dropped out of the top 10. He finished 18th.

“I knew when nobody stayed out that as fast as that front four or five were, it was impossible to hold them off,” he said. “We’ve got to take risks, though.”

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