Kasey Kahne spoiled Denny Hamlin’s heroic drive through the field and held on to win Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, all but securing a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with his second victory of the season.
Kahne led the final 66 laps, as fast-closing Hamlin ran out of time after starting deep in the field on a restart on Lap 240. Hamlin had dominated the race, but a miscommunication on pit strategy cost him track position in the late going, and Hamlin ran out of time after securing the runner-up spot.
Clint Bowyer ran third, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman completed the top 10.
The victory was Kahne’s first at the Magic Mile and the 14th of his career. Kahne is 12th in the standings — and the only driver in positions 11-20 with two victories — with seven races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond.
The two drivers in positions 11-20 with the most victories qualify for the Chase as wild cards, with the tiebreaker being position in the standings.
With a Chase spot likely in his future, Kahne already is looking ahead to the next race at the 1.058-mile track, which hosts the second race in the Cup series’ 10-race playoff.
“We feel good about where we were when we got here,” Kahne said. “We know what we need to work on, as far as taking notes from today, what the track did and how it changed. The track will be a touch different when we come back, but a lot of the characteristics will be the same.
“We’ll be able to look at this track and really have a good game plan going into the Chase race here. We know some of the other cars that are going to run well, too, when we come back, so we need to be a little better, and I’ve got the right guy to work on that (crew chief Kenny Francis).”
After a cycle of green-flag pit stops just past the halfway point, Hamlin stretched his lead over Kahne to 5.5 seconds, as small rain cells moved toward the speedway. Hamlin then began picking off competitive cars, lapping Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard in quick succession.
As Hamlin worked traffic, however, Kahne made inroads into his advantage, cutting the margin between the top two cars to 2.601 seconds on Lap 187. Hamlin’s entire lead disappeared two laps later when NASCAR called a debris caution.
With a light drizzle misting the race track, pole-sitter Kyle Busch stayed out while the rest of the contenders came to pit road to refuel. Busch led the field to a restart on Lap 197 but quickly gave way to Hamlin, who opened a lead of 2.304 seconds over his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate by Lap 211.
Racing on tires that were 32 laps older than those of his rivals, Busch kept the rest of the field at bay, but he overshot his pit stall slightly during a green-flag stop on Lap 231 and lost second to Johnson, who short-pitted on the same lap.
A caution on Lap 232 for David Reutimann’s blown engine scrambled the field. Hamlin, who took four tires on Lap 235, lost 12 spots on pit road and restarted 13th as Kahne and Earnhardt led the field to green with 62 laps left.
By Lap 253, Hamlin had climbed to sixth. On Lap 257, he got by Biffle in Turn 1 for fifth. Harvick succumbed to Hamlin’s superior speed on Lap 263, and the No. 11 Toyota was fourth. Earnhardt was the next victim, surrendering third place on Lap 272. Five laps later, Hamlin ducked to the inside of Bowyer through Turns 1 and 2, took over the second position and took off after Kahne before he ran out of time.
Kahne was acutely aware of where Hamlin was but was confident in his ability to hold the lead as the laps ran down.
“I was definitely focused on the lapped cars I was going by and how I could clear them quick,” Kahne said. “But I lost a ton of forward drive, amd I was getting pretty loose, and Denny was coming on four (tires).
“So I was paying attention to where he was, but I felt pretty good about the lead we had.”
The miscommunication between Hamlin and Grubb centered around whether to take two tires or four on the final stop. Grubb wanted to go with two tires, which would have kept them on par with the rest of the field, but he thought Hamlin wanted fresh rubber on both sides — hence, the four-tire call.
“Darian asked me how much of the tires I felt like I used up,” Hamlin said. “I said I felt like I used them up a substantial amount. I’d been on the lefts for quite a few laps, and so my information to him was that, yeah, we’d used up the tires. He said, ‘I think two’s the call.’
“I said ‘OK, just give me tires and no adjustments.’ He took that as I meant four tires. Just that small communication messed us up a little bit, but nothing’s a given. Even though it was pretty obvious that we had a win in the bag if we took two tires, you never know what could have happened.
“Either way, we had a great day, and we’re going to build on it.”
Notes: Matt Kenseth, who finished 13th Sunday, held the series lead by 16 points over second-place Earnhardt, with Biffle in third, 40 points back . . . Carl Edwards ran 18th and remained 11th in the standings, 46 points behind 10th-place Keselowski. Edwards, however, is winless this season and needs a victory to enter the wild-card conversation.