LOUDON, N.H. – Denny Hamlin put an end to the struggles of Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway by holding off Kyle Larson to win the Overton’s 301.
The victory by Hamlin was the first of the season for the driver of the No. 11 Toyota and the first of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It was a big recovery for Hamlin and his team, who were forced to a backup car when Hamlin crashed in the first practice on Friday.
Hamlin started the final stage on lap 158 as the leader after getting off pit road first between stages, but was passed for the lead by stage one winner Martin Truex Jr. on lap 175. Truex proceeded to pull away from Hamlin, who fell into the clutches of his teammate Kyle Busch before fading to third on lap 182.
Truex continued to lead the field, but just as the field began its green flag pit cycle Truex was forced down pit road on lap 219 with a flat right-front tire. That gave the lead to Busch, who stayed on track until finally pitting on lap 239.
Unfortunately for Busch NASCAR busted him for speeding on pit road during his pit stop. The resulting pass through penalty dropped Busch out of contention as Truex resumed the race lead once the pit cycle was complete.
Though back in the race lead, Truex’s tires were much older than those of the other leaders. Matt Kenseth, who was now running second, was able to use much fresher tires to chase down and pass Truex for the race lead with 41 laps remaining.
One lap after Kenseth took the race lead the final caution flag of the race waved when Ryan Newman spun between turns one and two. That led to the final round of pit stops, with Kenseth leading the field down pit road.
Kenseth’s team opted for two fresh tires during the pit stop, thinking others in the field would follow suit. The plan backfired on Kenseth as all the other lead-lap cars that came down pit road opted instead for four tires. Dale Earnhardt Jr. opted not to pit and inherited the race lead, followed by Kenseth, stage one winner Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin and Larson.
The green flag waved for the final time with 35 laps left. Kenseth made quick work of Earnhardt and regained the race lead, but Hamlin quickly moved into second and was all over his JGR teammate. One lap later Hamlin made the move under Kenseth, taking the race lead.
Hamlin quickly stretched his lead to more than two seconds as Kenseth was forced to defend second against Larson and Truex. After battling Kenseth for several laps, Larson was able to take second with 26 laps remaining and set off in pursuit of Hamlin.
Lap after lap Larson was able to close the gap on Hamlin, but only in small amounts. With 22 laps left Larson was two seconds behind Hamlin, but that gap was down to 1.2 seconds with 10 laps remaining.
Larson continued to close on Hamlin in the final 10 laps, with lap traffic helping Larson to close the gap even more. With three laps remaining Larson was nearly at Hamlin’s bumper, but Hamlin was able to inch away from Larson and maintain the lead.
At the checkered flag Hamlin bested Larson by roughly half a second to score his 30th career NASCAR Cup Series victory and third at 1.058-mile oval.
“I was just trying to do everything I could to pace,” Hamlin said about the final laps of the race. “I knew he had a fast car. It just seemed like we were able to get off the corner pretty good and I just ran kind of a pace there that I felt comfortable with just incase we had to restart, I didn’t want to burn the tires up.
“I put us behind the eight-ball on Friday, but it’s cool to win one like this,” Hamlin said. “We definitely needed a win for myself, the organization, (to) get some momentum going.”
Hamlin is the 12th different driver to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race this year. The victory all but assures him a position in the playoffs with only seven races left before the cutoff race at Richmond (Va.) Int’l Raceway.
For the second-straight race Larson started at the rear of the field, this time after a post-qualifying infraction that negated his pole-winning qualifying time. Just like last week at Kentucky Speedway, Larson was able to rebound and finish second.
“I felt like if I ever got close enough to him I could carry a lot more speed entry to middle than he could. So I felt like I could probably get close to him and then follow him in his line up top and maybe try to get pointed on exit better than him,” Larson said. “Heck of a day for the Target team. I can’t thank everybody enough.
“Had to start last and finished second again.”
Truex finished third after leading every lap of the opening stage of the race. Kenseth finished fourth after the two-tire gamble during the final pit stop, with Kevin Harvick completing the top-five.
Rookie Daniel Suarez matched his career-best finish in sixth, followed by Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.
For complete race results, advance to the next page.