LOUDON, N.H. - Pit-road communication, or rather the lack thereof, cost Denny Hamlin what seemed to be a sure victory in the Lenox 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, handing an edge to Kasey Kahne that Hamlin could not surmount.
The victory, Kahne’s second of the season, greatly enhanced the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s chances for making NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, still seven weeks away.
“Track position was really big,” Kahne said. “I knew I needed as big a lead as I could get because I knew Denny (Hamlin) was coming. I pressed my advantage as much as I could ... and I won the race.”
Hamlin told crew chief Darian Grubb he needed tires on his final pit stop. Grubb took that to mean four tires. When other contenders changed only two, it cost Hamlin 13 positions.
In the final laps, Hamlin shaved Kahne’s edge to about a second but trailed him across the finish line, 2.738 seconds behind. Clint Bowyer finished third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth and Brad Keselowski fifth.
An act of desperation with two laps to go effectively ended the Toyota driver’s pursuit.
“I ran out of brakes and talent,” Hamlin said afterwards.
Not surprisingly, Kyle Busch assumed the lead at the outset but was unable to shake the pursuit of Kahne and Hamlin, who wrested second place from Kahne on the eighth lap.
After the first 50 laps, the top six consisted of two Gibbs Toyotas (Busch and Hamlin) and four Hendrick Chevys (Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt). In fact, positions 7-10 were two Waltrip Toyotas (Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.) followed by Stewart-Haas Chevys (Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman). Kevin Harvick broke that up by taking 10th from Stewart on lap 53.
A pit stop, not an on-track pass, removed Busch from the lead after 66 laps. That stop was disastrous as it dropped the pole-winner 21 positions. The crew had trouble with a tire, and a NASCAR penalty for entering the pits too rapidly aggravated the problem. Up front, Hamlin took a comfortable (nearly a second and a half) lead over Kahne based on his pit stop.
After the first caution period — for debris at lap 89 — Hamlin led, but trailing in pursuit were all four Hendrick entries: in order, Gordon, Kahne, Johnson and Earnhardt.
Meanwhile, the winner of the most recent New Hampshire race, Stewart, was running 22nd, next to last among those on the lead lap.
As the race entered its second half, Hamlin laid waste to the rest of the field. At lap 175, his edge over Kahne was almost five seconds, and it was on that lap that he lapped Stewart’s Chevy.
Only 16 cars remained on the same lap as Hamlin. Among those who had lost touch besides Stewart were Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr. and Juan Montoya.
Kahne, meanwhile, began cutting into Hamlin’s lead. By lap 188, Kahne had whittled the leader’s edge from 6.8 to 2.3 seconds. No matter. A debris caution waved two laps later, and five drivers returned to the lead lap, including Stewart, Ambrose, Menard and McMurray.
The caution flag was ineffectual in stemming Hamlin’s domination. By lap 225, Hamlin’s lead over Kyle Busch was over three seconds and the spread across the top 10 was nearly 12 seconds. Busch’s final pit stop, for just two tires, took 13.4 seconds, and he was leaving pit road when the third yellow flag, for an apparent blown engine in David Reutimann’s Chevy, waved.
The caution flag turned the order near the front nearly upside down as Hamlin restarted in 14th place with Kahne, Bowyer, Earnhardt, Newman and Greg Biffle occupying the top five a lap 239.
In 13 laps, Hamlin improved from 14th to seventh, trailing Kahne by 7.8 seconds at lap 253. He reached third on lap 272. Six laps later he took second from Bowyer, leaving him 2.856 seconds back with 23 laps remaining.
The lead changed hands 16 times, but only twice did one driver pass another for the lead when the cars were racing at full speed. On both occasions it was Hamlin, once taking the lead from Kyle Busch and the other from Jeff Gordon. The other lead changes occurred as a result of pit stops and caution flags.