LOUDON, N.H. – After going winless through the opening 18 races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Joe Gibbs Racing finally found their way back to the top of the heap on Sunday afternoon, with Denny Hamlin scoring the victory in the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Hamlin had to come from the rear of the field – in a backup car – after a practice crash on Friday, but took advantage of four fresh tires and a restart with 35 laps to go to charge past teammate Matt Kenseth and assume the lead for good.
The Chesterfield, Va. native then had to hold off a furious charge from Kyle Larson in the closing stages en route to scoring his 30th career Cup win and third at Loudon.
“I was just trying to do everything I could to keep pace,” Hamlin said after climbing from his car on the frontstretch. “I knew he (Larson) had a very fast car, but it just seemed like we were able to get off the corner very good. I just ran a pace that I felt comfortable with and just in case we had a restart at the end, I didn’t want to burn the tires up.”
“I am so proud of this team. I wrecked in practice and I put us behind the 8-ball on Friday, but it’s cool to win one like this. I don’t necessarily feel like we had the fastest car today, but we got the job done.”
After Martin Truex Jr. won the first stage and dominated much of the afternoon – despite a flat tire with 84 to go – the path of the race went into flux with 41 laps left when Ryan Newman went spinning to draw the yellow flag, just after the conclusion of the last green-flag pit cycle.
That sent all the frontrunners to pit road and saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. stay out to inherit the top spot, having been the last car to pit under green before the incident.
When racing resumed on the final restart, Earnhardt quickly faded on his older tires as Matt Kenseth leapt out to a quick lead on two fresh right-side tires, but Kenseth’s tenure at the front of the field was short-lived.
It took Hamlin only two laps to work around Kenseth, while chaos reigned behind them as Truex dropped back into a hornet’s nest of traffic after slipping into the middle of the track on the restart.
That allowed Larson to work clear of Truex and give chase to the top duo, passing Kenseth for second with 25 to go and setting his sights on Hamlin, who was more than two seconds clear of the field at that point.
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