By Jeff Wolfe
Kasey Kahne didn’t have to do anything spectacular on the way to victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway Sunday.
He and his team just didn’t make any big mistakes. And while he admitted he wasn’t the fastest car on the day, the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports car was the winning one.
Kahne took the lead for good on the final restart and then outlasted a hard charging Denny Hamlin to win his second Sprint Cup Series race of the season and 14th of his career. Kahne led the final 66 laps after coming out of the pits first after the third and final caution on lap 236 of the 301-lap race.
“We ran in [the] top six most of the day and Denny obviously had the best car,” said Kahne. “We just had to battle hard the whole race. We got track position and we were able to lead those final laps.”
Hamlin had dominated much of the race, leading 150 laps. However, on the final stop, he had a miscommunication with crew chief Darian Grubb, who thought Hamlin wanted four tires. So, when the rest of the leaders each took two tires on the final stop, that pushed Hamlin from first to 13th with 62 laps remaining when the green flag dropped.
“It was just a miscommunication,” Hamlin said. “I told Darian all I needed was tires and that was it. He took it that I needed four tires. We still had a shot at the end, but didn’t quite have enough for the win. Its the best car I’ve had here. We’ll get the one here that counts and that’s in September.”
Kahne’s crew chief, Kenny Francis, made his pit stop call count Sunday, going with the two tires on the final stop. That got Kahne the ever-so-precious track position and clean air at the front the pack that can make a big difference on how the cars handle at the 1-mile oval.
After Kahne held off Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle early in that final run, it was just a matter of Hamlin passing enough cars fast enough to reach Kahne. Hamlin, driving his No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, had worked his way up to second with 22 laps remaining, but still was about three seconds behind Kahne. And while he gained about a one-tenth of a second on each lap, he never got close enough to seriously challenge Kahne in the closing laps in front of an estimated crowd of 95,000.
“I was definitely focused on the lap cars and how I could clear them quickly,” Kahne said. “I had lost a ton of forward drive and Denny was coming on four (tires). I was paying attention to where he was, but felt pretty good about the lead we had.”
Two contenders who didn’t feel good about that last caution were Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. They each came onto pit road under green on lap 232 for what would be their final pit stops. But the caution came out on lap 235 when the engine let go on the No. 10 car of David Reutimann before any of the other leaders had pitted, leaving Johnson and Busch each a lap down. Johnson was the Lucky Dog, the first car one lap down, so he got his lap back, while Busch took the wave around to get back on the lead lap. However, their chances of victory were essentially over.
“I’m going to keep my mouth shut on that caution,” said Johnson, who rallied to finish seventh. “There was a lot of speed in that car. There were Gibbs cars and the Hendrick cars today and at times, I was [the] fastest Hendrick car.”
The fastest Gibbs car early in the race was Busch, who started on the pole. He led the first 66 laps and looked to be the car to beat early. But, his first pit stop proved disastrous. The crew appeared to have trouble getting the lug nuts on the right rear tire. That resulted in confusion for the jackman, when the NASCAR official pointed at the right rear. Fortunately, he didn’t have to put the jack down again and went back to the left side. Then, when Busch left the pits, he was caught speeding on pit road. That put him in 22nd-place after the pit stops cycled through.
Busch, who finished 16th, also hurt himself on that final pit stop, when his car slid just over the edge of the his pit box line, adding about four seconds to the pit stop as the crew had to push the car back.
After Kahne and Hamlin, the rest of the top-10 were Bowyer in third, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman.
Keselowski had an impressive day after starting 22nd and making 74 green flag passes, the most of any driver on the day.
“I passed a lot of cars today,” Keselowski said. “With a little more track position at the end, we could have been second or third.”
Kahne, now though, feels good about his team with seven races left in the regular season and the two wins helping his chances in to reach the Chase for the Championship, the final ten races of the season.
“We’ve feel like we’ve been pretty tough all year, we just haven’t finished them off all the time,” Kahne said. From here on out, we just have to stay after it. We can’t wait for some of these other tracks coming up.”
Hamlin feels like his team is ready to contend for a title as well.
“If we’re not wrecking, we’re in contention to win every week,” he said. “That’s all I can ask of this team. I’m very pleased with where we are at right now.”
The Sprint Cup series will have next weekend off, then returns to action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 29 for the Crown Royal’s Your Hero’s Name Here 400 (the hero has yet to be announced). Coverage will begin at 12:00pm with NASCAR Countdown and race coverage will begin at 1:00pm on ESPN.