LOUDON, N.H. – Denny Hamlin had the fastest car Sunday at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway; Kasey Kahne had the fastest-thinking crew chief.
Brains, not brawn, proved best.
Kahne gained all-important track position during the final pit stop of the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 by taking two tires while Hamlin gave 12 spots to take four tires. Although Hamlin made it interesting in the final five laps, Kahne stayed out front for a win that could go a long way in locking him into the upcoming Chase for the Championship.
Hamlin led a race-best 151 laps, but he and crew chief Darian Grubb were confused during the final stop. Hamlin wanted two tires; Grubb misunderstood and called for four. The extra time in the pits created a deficit Hamlin couldn’t overcome.
There were no communication problems between Kahne and Kenny Francis. They’ve worked together for nearly seven years, so much of their late-race strategy is instinctive.
“You know, it was kind of a non-call at the end,” Francis said. “I was shocked when the 11 (Hamlin) took four (tires) and it kind of gifted us the lead there. Fortunately we were able to finish it off and out-run him to the end.
“It feels good to steal one from somebody else.”
Kahne led the final 66 laps. Hamlin re-started 13th and got all the way back to second place before he ran out of time.
“You’re going to have days like this,” Hamlin said. “It’s part of racing. That’s why it’s such a team sport. It’s the pit crew, the driver, the car, the crew chief, all those things put together. We just had a slight miscommunication, that one little mistake will magnify and take a win away from you.”
Hamlin had a huge lead when the caution flag waved for David Reutimann’s blown engine. Hamlin talked with Grubb as he approached pit road, and that’s when there hopes of winning skewed off course.
“He said, ‘I think two (tires) is the call.’ I said, ‘OK, just give me tires and no adjustments.’ He took that as I meant four tires,” Hamlin said. “So it’s just that small miscommunication just messed us up a little bit.”
Hamlin got as close as 10 car lengths, but his charge stalled coming to the white flag when his car drifted high in the corner and nearly hit the outside wall.
“I ran out of brakes and talent with two to go,” Hamlin said.
Kahne, who had been watching Hamlin in his rearview mirror for nearly 20 laps, saw it all and coasted for a quarter-lap victory.
“Kenny Francis did a great job,” Kahne said. “We ran in the top five the whole race, but Denny (Hamlin) was obviously the best car. We did it. We had good pit strategy, got the track position, and we were able to lead those final laps there.”
Without the communication gaff between Hamlin and Grubb, however, Kahne knows he didn’t have a chance.
“If he was to keep the track position, I never would have passed him,” Kahne said.
The victory was Kahne’s second of the year and it gave him the advantage against three other drivers trying to qualify for the Chase for the Championship as a wild card entry. The top two drivers who aren’t in the top 10 with the most wins also move into the playoffs.
Clint Bowyer wound up third, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth, Brad Keselowski in fifth, Jeff Gordon in sixth, Jimmie Johnson in seventh and Kevin Harvick in eighth.
Kyle Busch started on the pole and he led the first 66 laps when he made his first pit stop. He was caught speeding entering pit road and was dropped back to 22nd place after a drive-through penalty.
It only took him 26 laps to get back into the top 10.
That opened the door for Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, to jump out front. He stayed there until he and Grubb got out of sync on the final stop.
The series will be off next week to set up a stretch of 17 consecutive racing weekends. The next stop is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 29.