Denny Hamlin stepped out of his car, pointed into the air and took a mighty swing of an invisible baseball bat. Like Babe Ruth did before him (or so the legend goes), Hamlin had called his shot.
The top winner in NASCAR’s regular season earned his series-leading fifth victory of the year Sunday, backing up a tweet of “We will win” with a mistake-free and dominating run at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the second event of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“You don’t want to sound too cocky, but I knew what we were capable of,” said Hamlin, who was 32nd in qualifying after his crew put the wrong pressure in his tires. “I know we made a couple of big mistakes, but I said we were fast enough to make it up and we did.”
It was the 100th career victory for team owner Joe Gibbs, who also won three Super Bowls as the coach of the Washington Redskins. And it came with a little teamwork, too, when Kyle Busch slowed down to help suck some debris off the front of Hamlin’s car and propel him to victory.
“As fast as he was, he could have gone to the back of any car and pulled that off,” said Jimmie Johnson, who finished second and took over the Chase lead. “I kind of thought he would be the guy to beat and he certainly was. We are second-best.”
Johnson will head into Dover, Del., one of his top tracks, one point ahead of Chicago winner Brad Keselowski, who was sixth Sunday. Jeff Gordon, who was the last man to qualify for the Chase, was third.
“We had a great race car,” said Johnson, a five-time NASCAR season champion, “just not an amazing car like the No. 11 did here today.”
Hamlin improved to third in the Chase, seven points behind Johnson, despite a tumultuous week that began with him running out of gas in Chicago and continued when his crew used race pressure instead of qualifying pressure in his tires on Friday. Hamlin also had problems with his crew here in July, when confusion during a tire change dropped him into traffic and left him scurrying to get back to the front of the field.
But he was confident enough on this track, where now he has five top five finishes in his last seven races, that he told a group of U.S. National Guardsmen during a publicity trip to New Hampshire earlier this month that would be back to share a few beers in victory lane. And despite finishing 16th in Chicago, Hamlin tweeted: “This is week 1 of 10. We will win next week.”
Hamlin had the fastest car in both practices, but the mistake in qualifying had him starting near the back of the field. Hamlin said he came to the track on Sunday with the goal of getting into the top 10 by the 100th lap.
He did better than that, taking the lead on the 94th lap and holding it for 193 laps in all.
“He was the class of the field from the time we unloaded,” said Clint Bowyer, who finished fourth and is tied for fifth in the Chase. “I don’t know what they figured out, but they figured it out in a big way.”
Hamlin, who won in New Hampshire in 2007, led for 150 laps here in July before a miscommunication with crew chief Darian Grubb over whether to change two tires or four cost him a chance at another win. Then, in the Chase opener in Chicago last week, he finished 16th after his crew failed to fill up his tank on the final pit stop.
But Hamlin remained confident, in person and on Twitter, and Gibbs said that spilled over to a crew that was frustrated over its own mistakes.
“That meant a lot to his team. And I think the way you handle things like that, being the guy that’s wheeling the car, I think is a big deal,” Gibbs said, commending Grubb as well. “Those guys are going to remember the way they were treated and I think they would die for them both.”
The biggest threat for Hamlin on Sunday was a plastic bag that was sucked onto the front of his car, blocking part of the air intake, with about one-third of the race to go. Busch, who had blown a cylinder and is not a part of the Chase, slowed down to allow his teammate to come up behind him.
The turbulence between the cars blew the debris off, and Hamlin was back on his way.
“No matter how fast your car is in practice, it’s no guarantee for the race. And so I was a little nervous about that and how the conditions were going to change,” Hamlin said. “But Darian obviously gave me a lightning fast car today. For me, my job was relatively easy: Just make sure that I didn’t make any enemies on the way to the front.”