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Denny Hamlin aims to keep New Hampshire promise

The SportsXchange

Sept. 20, 2012: Weekend preview

NASCAR Wire Service

Distributed by The Sports Xchange

It might not be Babe Ruth's called shot or Joe Namath's Super Bowl III guarantee, but Denny Hamlin's proclamation after the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup opener last week was just as bold.

Hamlin entered the postseason as the top seed based on his four regular-season wins, but when his fuel tank ran dry Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, he opened the Chase with a 16th-place finish and a thud. The gaffe dropped him into a tie for fourth place in the standings, 15 points behind race winner Brad Keselowski.

But Hamlin, never one to demur in the self-confidence department, issued this post-race tweet: "This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week."

Hamlin will get the chance to make good on his word in Sunday's SYLVANIA 300 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, site of round 2 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' postseason Chase. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has won at the relatively flat, 1.058-mile track in Loudon once before (in 2007) and has come close thrice before with a trio of runner-up finishes, most recently in July when he led 150 of 301 laps, only to run second to Kasey Kahne.

"We're bringing the best car we have in our stable for it, and obviously feel like it's an opportunity track for us to continue to gain points," Hamlin said. "It's the tracks like Dover which you hope to just maintain and put a band-aid on your program, but I think for the most part, when we get to Loudon, it's the one track I have in my mind that we can win at."

Kahne finished third at Chicago to jump into the tie with Hamlin and Clint Bowyer in the standings. His New Hampshire victory in July, his second of the season, gave him the inside track for a wild-card berth in the Chase, but Kahne still sees room for improvement.

"We won there this year, but I don't think we were the best car," Kahne said. "I think we need to work on the car a little bit. We need to make a few changes to be better than we were, but I think we'll be pretty darn good when we get there and have a nice package to start with and try to go from there. ... To win one (there) this year gives our team a lot of confidence and momentum going back."

STENHOUSE READY TO MAKE STATEMENT

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. didn't weather the bumpy surface of Kentucky Speedway so well in June, taking his lumps with a mediocre eighth-place finish. Since then, the bumps have been relatively few.

The defending NASCAR Nationwide Series champion returns to the 1.5-mile track in Sparta, Ky., with a substantial head of steam for Saturday's Kentucky 300 (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), the 27th of 33 events this season.

In the last four races, Stenhouse has two wins and a pair of runner-up finishes. His triumph last Saturday at Chicagoland helped him reclaim the series points lead from Elliott Sadler, his chief rival in last year's title run.

Four of Stenhouse's five victories this season have come on 1.5-mile tracks, providing added optimism heading to the intermediate-size Kentucky layout.

"We're coming off a big win so we will carry that momentum into this weekend," Stenhouse said. "Earlier this year, we didn't make the right adjustments but we've learned from that, so I feel we will be a strong contender this weekend. We've never gotten back-to-back wins so we are going to try to break that streak by getting our No. 6 Ford Ecoboost Mustang into Victory Lane."

Sadler, who had held the Nationwide lead since early June, led Stenhouse by 21 points after his victory last month at Iowa Speedway, but a mild slump over the last six races has him facing a nine-point deficit heading to Kentucky. Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon, who scored a dominant breakthrough Nationwide win at Kentucky in June, sits third, 34 points off the lead.

BLANEY RISES AS POINTS TURN OVER IN TRUCKS

Plot twists were plentiful for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Iowa Speedway, which only makes the plot thicker this weekend.

The sorting-out period continues in Friday night's Kentucky 201 (7:30 p.m. ET, SPEED) at Kentucky Speedway, where the truck tour will race with fresh faces grabbing the attention.

By the end of last Saturday night at Iowa, 18-year-old Ryan Blaney was celebrating in Victory Lane, becoming the youngest winner in series history and the 12th different winner in 15 events this season. Blaney will be making just his fourth start in the series, where he'll also pull double-duty in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.

"As a driver, confidence is really important in driving race cars and your confidence level is just sky high when you win the week before," Blaney said. "I think it's just always an added bonus being the winner the previous week and everyone always looks out for you."

The other fresh faces are the result of an upheaval in the standings after Iowa. Rookie Ty Dillon's runner-up finish moved him from third place into sole possession of the series points lead for the first time in his career. Timothy Peters slipped from first to second, eight points behind Dillon, while James Buescher dropped from second to third in the standings and sits 11 points back.

Buescher rolled to victory in the truck series' visit to Kentucky in June, leading 119 of 150 laps.
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