KASEY KAHNE celebrates in Victory Lane after winning Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Kathy Sutherland. (click for larger version)
July 16, 2012LOUDON — The story of the NASCAR season in 2012 has been the seeming lack of yellow flags.
That trend was on display quite well on Sunday in Loudon as the Sprint Cup Series made its way to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
However, it was one of only three cautions that brought the most drama to the track, as Denny Hamlin, who had dominated the race through the first 230 laps, took four tires under caution, while most of his competitors took two, sending Hamlin's #11 back to 13th in the field when the green flag flew again.
Hamlin came barreling through the field over the final 35 laps of the race, picking off one car after another until he passed Clint Bowyer for second place with 24 laps to go. However, he wasn't able to muster quite enough strength to make his way back to the top spot, as Kasey Kahne took the victory in front of a less-than-full-house in Loudon.
Hamlin's call to take four tires instead of two was basically a result of a miscommunication between he and his crew chief, Darian Grubb.
"Darian wanted to take two, I told him I just needed tires and that was it," Hamlin said. "He took it that I needed four tires. It was just a little miscommunication that turned into a second-place finish."
Despite being behind the eight-ball in the final charge, Hamlin's car, with the four new tires, was strong in the final laps and he caught 11 of the 12 cars in front of him, methodically picking off car after car before getting by Bowyer in the final 25 laps.
"It made our car faster than it already was today, but you can't overcome over a straightaway that we were back," Hamlin said of the four new tires. "We just didn't have enough laps was the bottom line."
Bowyer got a first-hand look at Hamlin's dominance as he ran at the front of the pack at the end of the race, only to settle for third when Hamlin went by.
"It was a long, hard-fought battle," Bowyer said. "We were just off. We've got to make the best of it."
Kahne was more than happy to take advantage of the Hamlin tire situation, something that caught he and crew chief Kenny Francis by surprise when it happened.
"When we got two tires at the end, I was feeling really good about where we were at," Kahne said. "And I knew I had to get us as big a lead as we could because I knew Denny would be coming."
"It was kind of a no-call at the end," Francis said. "We were shocked when the 11 took four and gifted us the lead."
"You have good luck at times and you have bad luck at times," said Kahne, who began the season with a rough stretch, but has been coming on over the past few weeks. "We had great luck today and we'll take it any way we can."
From the start, polesitter Kyle Busch was the man to beat, as he led a fairly quiet race over the first 66 laps. However, the Hendrick Motorsports cars of Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. lurked close by. Hamlin and Kahne exchanged the second spot within the first 30 laps, but Busch maintained the lead. Brad Keselowski, winner of the Nationwide Series race the previous day, was also barreling through the field, fighting his way to just outside the top 10 after starting back in the field.
With no yellow flags having waved, the cars began making green flag pit stops at lap 64, with Keselowski leading the way in. Busch came in on lap 67, relinquishing the lead to Gordon, who in turn relinquished it to Johnson when he came down pit road.
Busch, however took a speeding penalty on pit road and had to make an extra pass through, eliminating his chance to go back to the lead after the pit stop cycle. Hamlin took that lead on lap 72 and held it through until the first yellow flag, which flew for debris at lap 90.
While most of the field pitted under yellow, Gordon decided to stay out, with Hamlin in second place. Hamlin didn't wait too long to take the lead back, as he went by Gordon on the restart and then held on for 60 more laps of green flag racing.
With all the green flag racing, the teams had to start coming to the pits for more green flag stops, with Hamlin and Kahne among those following down pit road. Once the pit stops cycled through, Hamlin still remained on top, with Gordon in second, Bobby Labonte in third and Kahne in fourth.
Things got a little interesting on lap 190, as the yellow flag flew for debris for the second time, leading Busch to stay on the track. Rain was also reported in the area about that time, which was key in Busch's decision to stay on the track. However, it never rained enough to bring out the yellow and Hamlin promptly passed Busch to take the lead back
Busch did manage to hold on to second place, despite pressure from Johnson and Kahne, but the third caution of the day, this one for oil on the track from the car of David Reutimann, brought about all the excitement.
Johnson pitted just moments before the yellow flag flew, putting him a lap down. He did get his lap back as the "lucky dog" recipient, but the yellow flag gave all the other competitors a chance to come down pit road to make their changes.
Hamlin, as noted, took the four tires, while everyone else took two and Kahne took the lead at the green flag and held on for the final 66 laps for the win.
Earnhardt Jr., who was second on the green flag, dropped back a spot as Bowyer came charging up from fourth and Hamlin's charge eventually dropped Earnhardt back to fourth place.
Keselowski, a week after winning in Kentucky, took fifth place, with Gordon in sixth, Johnson in seventh, Kevin Harvick in eighth, Greg Biffle in ninth and Ryan Newman in 10th.
Points leader Matt Kenseth finished 13th and maintained his lead over Earnhardt Jr.
The race marked Kahne's first victory on the Magic Mile.
"I've been up and down at this track over the years," Kahne said. "This was a really strong weekend for us.
"Kenny (Francis) had a great plan, we had a car that unloaded very close and a strong group of guys working on it," Kahne continued.
The win also propelled Kahne to the lead in the wild card standings. For the NASCAR playoffs, The Chase to the Sprint Cup, the top 10 cars in points automatically qualify and the two drivers with the most number of wins outside the top 10 earn wild card bids. It also put him in 12th place in points, putting him in good position.
"I thought when we won Charlotte (May 27), that really boosted our team a lot," Kahne said. "Charlotte to me was a big turning point for us. Today is just another bonus. This should give the team some more confidence and carry some momentum into these final (seven races before the Chase)."
Joshua Spaulding can be reached at email@example.com or 569-3126