After running out of fuel on the final lap Sunday at Chicagoland, Denny Hamlin had a message for the rest of the Sprint Cup field: Watch out at New Hampshire.
Hamlin didn't say it directly in his post-race comments, but the meaning came through loud and clear. If he's going to win the Chase this season, he's going to have to win races. And there's no better place to start than New Hampshire.
"This weekend is definitely a race that I think our team can win," Hamlin said this week. "I know that [crew chief Darian Grubb] is going to bring a fast car, and I know that our team is eager to get back out there and put together a solid race from start to finish."
If history truly does repeat itself, Hamlin would do well to follow Kurt Busch's game plan from the 2004 Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire -- the inaugural Chase race. Busch turned the previous week's disappointment into a victory on his way to a NASCAR championship that season.
At the same time, no Chase driver wants to wind up the victim of racing retaliation -- especially like what happened to Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield that day.
Busch seemingly had everything under control at Richmond, but ran out of fuel while leading with eight laps remaining. So, when he was asked about his title chances prior to the beginning of the Chase, Busch's reply was, "Who knows? We could be the points leader come the end of Sunday."
In order to do that, he'd need to sweep the season series at Loudon. Busch had proven "best in show" in July, racing up from a 32nd-place starting position to lead 110 laps, including the final 68.
So when rain hampered on-track activity and eventually forced cancelation of qualifying, Busch didn't have to fret. He knew he had a stout ride, because he had a race-winner in the hauler.
"We pulled the car out from underneath the car cover and ran the same race car," Busch said. "We didn't have many [changes] to throw at this car because it was such a good car in July. We did change a couple of springs, and away we went."
If anything, the wet weather hampered the rest of the field. Most of the Chase competitors had chosen Loudon as a place to test, but with limited amount of track time that weekend, couldn't fine-tune what they had learned until the first pit stop of the race -- and by then, it was too little, too late.
With the lineup set by owner's points -- putting all 10 Chase contenders together -- Busch rolled off seventh. And he bided his time, not going to the front until Lap 135. But once he got there, he was almost impossible to chase down, as runner-up Matt Kenseth could attest.
"I knew we probably weren't going to catch him," Kenseth said. "Kurt had a great car and was getting through the center of the corner really fast. I tried to keep up with him as long as I could.
"We were set up a little different than Kurt. We couldn't do anything with him, but I'm pretty happy with the way it went."
The win allowed Busch to share the points lead with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished third. Busch would eventually build a sizeable advantage over the rest of the competition before holding off hard-charging Jimmie Johnson by just eight points after Homestead.
That's the same strategy Hamlin would love to employ this year. But what he'd most like to avoid Sunday is a repeat of what happened to Stewart and Mayfield.
There were seven cautions that day, three of which involved Robby Gordon. On Lap 17, Gordon dove below Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick heading into Turn 1, making it three-wide in a place where grip was definitely at a premium.
Gordon's move that early in the race might have been ill-advised to begin with, but it wound up going from bad to worse when Biffle wasn't about to give Gordon the spot without contest.
Gordon did a 360-degree spin and slammed into the outside wall, while Biffle wiggled but kept his car under control.
Certain that Biffle had tapped the rear bumper of his car and spun him out deliberately, Gordon went looking for payback. And on Lap 64, he made sure Biffle knew of his displeasure, turning Biffle into Mayfield. Biffle then spun back down the track, where he collected Stewart.
That earned Gordon a two-lap penalty for rough driving, but he and Biffle made it to the finish. That wasn't the case with the two Chase contenders.
Stewart's day was done at that point and he finished 39th. Mayfield spent significant time in the pits for repairs, winding up 35th, and was none too pleased.
"I don't know why they had to settle it on the race track," Mayfield said. "I guess they're too scared to settle it off the track. But it's a shame for us to be caught up in somebody else's stupidity."
- Denny Hamlin
- Kurt Busch
- Jeremy Mayfield
- Tony Stewart