For all intents and purposes, Denny Hamlin should have won July's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He dominated the race, leading 150 laps, and probably would have passed the 200-lap led plateau if not for a botched pit call by crew chief Darian Grubb during the final caution period. Grubb mistakenly thought Hamlin wanted four fresh Goodyear Eagle tires, and when Kasey Kahne and the other frontrunners only slapped on new right-side tires, Hamlin was buried outside the top-10 when the race went green 62 laps from the end.
Hamlin nearly ran Kahne down, but he overdrove turn three on the penultimate lap and had to settle for a runner-up finish.
This weekend, Hamlin and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are back in Loudon, NH, for the Sylvania 300. Sunday's event is the second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. After running out of gas on the last lap at Chicagoland and winding up 16th to open the Chase, Hamlin finds himself 15 points behind winner Brad Keselowski. In addition to the point margin, Hamlin also has Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart - winners of the sport's last seven championships and eight of the last ten - standing between him and the top spot.
If his performance in July's 301-lapper is an encouraging sign for Hamlin, so too is the man atop his pit box. Grubb won last year's Sylvania 300 with Stewart, their second-straight win to open the Chase and their second of the five wins that ultimately netted Stewart's third championship and Grubb's first. Despite the run to the title, Stewart stuck to his pre-Chase decision to replace Grubb - he had already verbally committed to Steve Addington, who was leaving Kurt Busch's team at season's end - and the Virginia Tech graduate quickly landed with his fellow native of the Old Dominion (Hamlin hails from Chesterfield, less than 20 miles down the road from Richmond).
Despite their quite-literal hiccup at the end of the playoff opener, Hamlin and company still stand alongside Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson as the favorites to win it all come November. Repeating their performance from July at NHIS and finishing the job this time around would be the perfect rebound from their disappointment last weekend.