LOUDON, N.H. -- What passed for a crisis Sunday unfolded with about 100 laps remaining at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, when the water temperature in Denny Hamlin's No. 11 car began to climb. Voices over the radio grew tense. Strategies were discussed. Decisions were made. Teammates were scrambled. Here it was, the one slam-dunk race victory Hamlin absolutely had to have in his quest for the Sprint Cup championship, suddenly cast into doubt.
Or maybe not.
"It's off," spotter Chris Lambert told his driver after the hot-dog wrapper, or napkin, or whatever it was blew off the front of Hamlin's grille -- thanks to an assist from Joe Gibbs Racing stable mate Kyle Busch, who dropped back to neutralize the air between the vehicles. That was the closest thing to a dilemma that Hamlin faced on an absolutely rock-solid afternoon in the Granite State, where he won the second Chase race with such authority that even some rivals were impressed. The No. 11 car was so in control, so dominant, that it probably still would have leveled the competition even with a slew of Mount Washington bumper stickers plastered across the front.
"I've not seen that dominant a car, to be able to come from that deep in the field on a track that's this hard to pass, and to make it look easy -- he had the short-run car and the long-run car," third-place finisher Jeff Gordon said after Hamlin rallied from a 32nd-place starting position to lead 193 of 300 laps. "They've obviously got something figured out."
*Hamlin calls his shot, wins at New Hampshire
Clearly they do, and perhaps not just for the Magic Mile. Jimmie Johnson moved into the Sprint Cup points lead by virtue of his runner-up finish Sunday, sparking the usual conversation about whether the five-time series champion is clearing room on his mantle for a sixth trophy. And make no mistake, Johnson is as dangerous as a rattlesnake right now, given his history in the Chase and his comfort level on the eight tracks remaining. Consecutive second-place results and ownership of the points lead, however slim, is a heck of a way to start off, and all of it is certain to evoke prognostications of what the most potent No. 48 team in two years is capable.
But Johnson's not the favorite. Not right now, at least. Hamlin may be seven points back of Johnson, and currently trailing both Five-Time and Brad Keselowski in the standings, but Sunday was his moment to deliver the message that his No. 11 program is the best team in this playoff at present. It wasn't just a dominant performance at New Hampshire. It goes beyond that, to three race wins in the past five weeks, and an effort good enough to have claimed one of those during that span that got away. He may be staring up at two other drivers in the points, but Hamlin looks a lot like Johnson did at his peak -- able to deliver victories in bunches, and occasionally unleash the kind of race that makes everyone else look like they're competing for something else.
*Final Laps|Victory Lane|Press Pass: Hamlin
So enough about the guarantee Hamlin made on Twitter after he slid from fourth to 16th on the final run at Chicagoland because his gas man didn't get all the fuel in the car. He didn't need to make a prediction for everyone to realize he was going to be so strong at New Hampshire. It should have been evident, and not just because he let one get away here in the summer. The guy has been on a rail since Atlanta, winning three times and leading 571 laps in that five-week span. If rain doesn't interrupt an effort at Richmond where he led 202 laps, maybe he bags another one. If he doesn't run out of gas at Chicago, maybe he's leading the points.
Yes, it's easy to be dazzled by Johnson's presence at the top. But what Hamlin is doing right now isn't luck. It isn't by accident. He's leading laps and winning races and pursuing a championship through a tried-and-true method. He's peaking at the absolute perfect time.
"I think we spend a lot of time at Joe Gibbs Racing preparing for Chases," Hamlin said after scoring his team's 100th victory at the Sprint Cup level. "We are starting to think about Chase 2013, probably, in this offseason. So we always stay about a year ahead of schedule as far as our mind-set and things that we work on. So I think that this has been something in the works. You try to get through the regular season as best you can, get those wins when you can. But you want to bring your best cars, and have everything go your way this time of the year. As a driver, I feel like I step up in this time of the year. So this is the time to perform."
No question, there will be doubters to that extent, people who remember his late collapse in the 2010 Chase and so many race wins -- like the one here in July, which became a runner-up finish after a miscommunication over how many tires to take on the last pit stop -- that got away. In part because of that history, Hamlin still is something of an unknown, someone who's going to have to reach out and seize that big sterling silver trophy before everyone is convinced he can do it. Johnson, by contrast, is a proven commodity, which is why even a narrow points lead feels so much larger than it is. "Leader, 48," Johnson is told so often over the radio. Few words in the sport carry as much weight.
"I think it gives them a big advantage," Gordon said of his Hendrick teammate's position. "Certainly it allows the competition to get down, beat mentally as well as on the race track. That gives you even another edge. These guys, they are just so strong, you don't expect them to make mistakes. When they are in this position, you expect them to be strong week in and week out, and they are going to be tough to beat. They are just that good."
And in fairness, a few months ago when everyone was watching the rear end of the No. 48 car yaw its way around the race track, Johnson seemed ready to put his boot heel on the neck of the competition. Then came rain and a wreck at Pocono, then a blown engine at Michigan, those events combining to open the door for Hamlin to swoop in and claim the top overall seed entering the Chase. Sunday was just a continuation of that, of the best run any team has going right now, even if Johnson suspected the No. 11 car's dominance might have stemmed from something else.
"I noticed his rear end moving," Johnson said with a laugh. "There was like extra skew or something in his rear end. Let's start that whole mess again."
No need. The streak Hamlin is on right now should look familiar to Johnson, because it's the same way the five-time champion has so often subdued the competition. There's a very long way to go, of course, and next week at Dover brings perhaps the biggest bear trap Hamlin will face in this Chase. But now, the cars are consistently good. Crew chief Darian Grubb won a title last season. The driver is proving more adept at shedding issues that in past years might have derailed him. Yes, there's a different, very dangerous, and more proven name atop the standings leaving New Hampshire. But to find the leading contender for this championship, all you had to do was peek into Victory Lane.
"It's neat, because I have the inside scoop," said Dave Rogers, crew chief for Hamlin's teammate Busch. "I can see what they're doing, I can see what they're working on. I can see how that team is gelling and coming together and believing in each other, working hard together to make the program as strong as it is. There's no magic, and that's the great thing. We've heard a lot about tricks, and trick parts, and trick this and trick that. Those guys have stuck to the basics. They're just working on good fundamentals."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Denny Hamlin
- New Hampshire