Denny Hamlin called his shot, and hit it out of the park when it mattered. Hamlin dominated New Hampshire for the second straight race, but did something he wasn’t able to do the first time around — close.
On Sunday, Hamlin led 193 laps and never even came close to relinquishing the lead down the stretch on the way to his fifth victory. The win moved him within seven points of series leader Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin made a statement by closing the deal at New Hampshire, but he could make an even bigger statement by stringing together consistent finishes like the top two in points have, Keselowski and Johnson.
As impressive as Hamlin has been in spurts, the consistency has been missing. Chicago was a perfect example. The No. 11 car wasn’t filled with fuel on what should’ve been the final stop and Hamlin ran out of gas and finished 16th instead of scoring a top 10.
Hamlin came in confident, knowing he should win at New Hampshire, but now he heads to what is statistically one of his worst tracks — Dover. How will Hamlin respond this week?
Here is who’s hot and who’s not after New Hampshire.
Surprise, surprise, the most consistent driver after the first two races of the Chase is *Jimmie Johnson*. Who would have thought? Johnson was no match for Brad Keselowski in the final stint at Chicago and no match for Denny Hamlin all race at New Hampshire, but he didn’t have to be. After two runner-up finishes in the first two races of NASCAR’s playoffs, he’s back in familiar territory — the points lead.
Johnson has started the Chase with back-to-back top 5 finishes twice before in 2008 and 2009. Both years he won the title. The good news keeps getting better as the series heads to Dover this week, where Johnson led 289 laps in the spring and lapped the majority of the field three times on the way to victory.
Don’t expect Johnson to run away in the Chase because of the guy on his heels — *Brad Keselowski.* Even on days they aren’t great, Paul Wolfe and Brad Keselowski pull solid finishes from where the sun don’t shine. It was two-tire pit stop that gave Keselowski track position at New Hampshire. He held on for sixth place, his 11th top 10 in the last 12 races.
The only driver besides Johnson to earn back-to-back top 5s to start the Chase is none other than *Kasey Kahne* — a driver who didn’t qualify for the playoffs in the last two seasons. Kahne is certainly making the most of his opportunity so far with a third-place at Chicago and a fifth at New Hampshire. Kahne and the next guy on this list are still within striking distance, 15 points back.
It shows where *Clint Bowyer’s* confidence level and expectations are when he steps from his car after a fourth-place result in the Chase, and he is disappointed in the effort. Each of the 12 drivers in the Chase know how important it is to maximize results at the tracks they normally run well at, and Bowyer seemed unhappy that he wasn’t able to grab his second win in three races.
It was still a positive result and gives Bowyer top 10s in each of the first two races in the playoffs and in seven of the last eight races overall.
*Brian Vickers* has as many top 10s this season as Juan Pablo Montoya and Aric Almirola (the 21st- and 22nd-place drivers in points) combined. Montoya and Almirola have each started all 28 races; Vickers has started just seven.
It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise to see Vickers climb through the field on Sunday, even after an engine change before the race had him start from the back. It’s what he has done in nearly every start for Michael Waltrip Racing this year. For Vickers, what a difference a year makes. At Martinsville in 2011 he made a fool out of himself by hitting every car, trailer and motor coach in the place, and after Red Bull Racing folded there wasn’t much interest being shown in the garage. Vickers was without a ride until MWR stepped up with an eight-race deal (Elliot Sadler was their first choice by the way.) A year later, NASCAR owners have to be rethinking Vickers because what he has done in limited time this season has been amazing.
I mentioned how Bowyer was disappointed with fourth on Sunday because he felt he missed his chance to capitalize at one of his best tracks. I wonder how *Martin Truex, Jr.* feels. Truex, Jr. struggled all day at one of his favorite tracks — a place he dominated on the East Series tour. After showing speed in all of the practices, Truex Jr. started ninth and slid backward on his way to 17th.
He now finds himself 34 points out of the lead. If he doesn’t finish in the top three at Dover, his championship run will likely be over.
After winning at Michigan, *Greg Biffle* talked about how people need to start looking at his team as championship contenders. No they don’t. I’m not sure if Roush Fenway Racing recently lost its manufacturing backing from Ford, but Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have been about as slow as the cars from Front Row Motorsports. Biffle was 13th at Chicago and 18th at New Hampshire. Overall, he has four finishes of 13th or worse in the five races since his Michigan win.
*Matt Kenseth* has matched his teammate Biffle almost identically with finishes of 18th and 14th to start the playoffs. The only difference is Kenseth already had the cards stacked against him when the Chase began because of his decision to sign with Joe Gibbs Racing for 2013. These separations between top drivers and top teams never end with championships. Look at Ricky Rudd in 2002, Kurt Busch in 2005 and Tony Stewart in 2008. I’m sure there are countless others I am not thinking of.
My point is that it was going to be really difficult for the No. 17 team to overcome that hurdle to compete for a Sprint Cup championship, but after the start they’ve had, it is pretty much over before it began. Kenseth is 35 points out of the lead, and I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of this team’s struggles.
It’s a day like Sunday that has to make *Kyle Busch* glad he did miss the Chase cutoff at Richmond. After leading 48 laps at New Hampshire, Busch dropped a cylinder and finished two laps down in 28th. Busch probably didn’t have anything for teammate Denny Hamlin, but I guess we’ll never really know.
Busch has been the Toyota Research and Development test dummy all season, and it appears the Chase will be no exception. He has seven finishes outside the top 25 in 2012, and they are almost all due to mechanical failures.
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