Kahne has wild card edge; trouble in the pits at New Hampshire

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After a long, grueling stretch of races, Sunday's contest in New England is the last race before the series gets its final off-weekend of the season. While some of the NASCAR Cup competitors will be racing in the Nationwide Series race next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, look for most drivers and teams to take a much-needed break before reconvening at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400 in two weeks.

So let's get right to the "Five Things We Learned at New Hampshire."

1. With Seven Races Left, Kahne Leads Wild Card Hunt

When NASCAR adopted the current Chase format that gives the final two wild card positions to drivers with the most victories in positions 11-20 after the 26th race of the season, it created a unique format where positions 11 and 12 could be sealed before many of the positions in the top 10. There are two ways to make the Chase: finish in the top 10 in points after the 400-lap race at Richmond on September 9 or, if out of the top 10, get at least two or more wins.

Kahne entered Sunday's race 16th in points with one victory and in a tight struggle with other one-race winners Kyle Busch (started 12th, now 13th in points), Joey Logano (started 14th, now 16th) and Ryan Newman (started 15th, now 14th). By scoring his second win of the season, Kahne, who stands 12th in points, jumps ahead of all three of those drivers in the race for the wild card. And with Brad Keselowski dropping to 10th in the standings with three victories, if he falls to 11th between now and Richmond, his three wins would earn him a wild card and Kahne's two wins would virtually lock up the other wild card.

Either way, Kahne's second win of the season, his first at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and 14th-career Cup win plays a major role in determining the makeup of this year's Chase.

"I feel like we've been pretty tough all year; we just haven't finished them off," Kahne said. "Hopefully, some more top 10s and top fives. It doesn't get us in the Chase yet but it helps with wins here and at Charlotte.

"We ran in the top five the whole race but Denny Hamlin obviously had the best car. We had a great Chevrolet and had to battle hard throughout the whole race. We did it with good pit strategy and were able to lead those final laps. I was getting pretty loose and Denny was coming on four tires. I was paying attention to where he was but I felt pretty good about the lead we had."

Kahne didn't make the Chase last year when he was driving for Team Red Bull, which is now out of business. But during the 10 races that comprise the Chase, Kahne was one of the better drivers in those 10 events although Tony Stewart's five wins in 10 races along with Carl Edwards keeping up with Stewart in the points overshadowed Kahne's performance in those 10 races.

Much was expected from Kahne when he made the move to Hendrick Motorsports this season and it is finally paying off. The next goal is to make the Chase and Hendrick Motorsports will have three top championship contenders including five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and the resurgent Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

2. A Failure to Communicate

One of the most famous lines in movie history was uttered by the late actor Strother Martin as "The Captain" -- the prison warden -- in the film "Cool Hand, Luke" when he said to prisoner Luke, played by the immortal Paul Newman, "What we have here is failure to communicate."

That line is also appropriate for the miscommunication between Denny Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb on the final pit stop that cost Hamlin an easy victory.

Hamlin was firmly in control of the lead before David Reutimann's engine blew up to bring out the yellow flag. Hamlin's crew changed four tires while the other contenders such as Bowyer and Keselowski changed just two tires. In fact, the top-10 drivers after the yellow flag pit stop changed just two tires and with 65 laps to go Hamlin's four-tire change dropped him all the way back to 13th place.

"What happened?" Hamlin asked Grubb over the radio.

"That was four tires versus two there, Bud," Grubb responded.

"Ohhh....," Hamlin responded.

"That's why I wanted to do two there but your car is way, way faster (on four tires than the others on two) so go out there and plough your way through it," Hamlin said.

"What made us switch to four?" Hamlin asked.

"You said you wanted tires," Grubb said.

"Oh God, no, I said just put tires on it," Hamlin said.

"That's why I was asking about the grip there, Bud, you said it gave up a lot and you needed it. You needed all of it. My bad, Bud. Go out there and take care of it for me," Grubb said.

And that is exactly what Hamlin did as he drove from 14th to sixth in 10 laps.

By lap 273 of 301, he was up to third place and had Bowyer's Toyota in his line of vision. Hamlin was able to pass Bowyer but ran out of time as Kahne won the race ahead of Hamlin's Toyota.

"It was a miscommunication," Hamlin said afterwards. "I told him I needed tires and Darian took it that I needed four tires. We still had a shot at a win but didn't get past all the cars quick enough. I'm still proud of our team. We're going to win the one that counts and that is in September. If we aren't wrecking we are in contention to win every single week. This year is setting up good for us. We have some good stuff coming and our race cars are getting better and better."

To get outrun on the race track is one thing but to throw it away in the pits is quite another.

"It's pretty much one of those deals where I asked the wrong question," Grubb said. "I made the wrong call. I was dead-set I was going to do two tires no matter what went on there and I let him kind of talk me into (taking four) by asking the wrong question. Denny did an awesome job. We had a shot to win it. I think with just a few more laps we would have had a really good shot at it."

Grubb was Stewart's crew chief last year when they won the Cup title. He has meshed well with Hamlin in 2012 but this driver/crew chief combination has to make sure there are no more communication breakdowns like this one.

"It's the pit crew, the driver, the car, the crew chief, all those things put together," Hamlin said. "We just had a slight miscommunication, that one little mistake will magnify and take a win away from you. Your emotions, it's tough to keep them in check when you know you've kind of given one away. Darian has won me a couple races this year more than he's taken away from me."

3. Johnson Questions Caution

Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was one lap down to Denny Hamlin but was ready to employ a fuel-saving strategy that would have gotten him to victory lane if the race remained green. Johnson had pitted on Lap 232. When Reutimann's engine issue brought out the yellow flag, Johnson got the free pass or "Lucky Dog" and was allowed to get back on the lead lap. Busch got the wave-around so he was also at the tail-end of the lead lap in 17th place.

"I'm going to keep my mouth shut on that caution," Johnson said. "We had a great race car. I'm very proud of this team. We had a lot of speed in the car. It was the Gibbs cars and the Hendrick cars and a lot of times I was the best Hendrick car. But that caution put us back in traffic.

"I'm just going to be quiet."

Kahne was the leader when the green flag waved with 62 laps to go and stayed in front through the checkered flag. But that yellow flag made the normally calm Johnson see red because he didn't think there was any reason for a caution because Reutimann's car was not spitting fluid on the race track.

4. For Kyle Busch, It's the Pits

Busch started on the pole and was the leader before a dreadful first pit stop dropped him to 22nd after his right rear tire was hung up. To add to Busch's problems, he got nailed for a speeding penalty on pit road that put him 44 seconds behind the leader, JGR teammate Hamlin.

Busch pitted on lap 233 but once again had a problem when he overshot his pit area, forcing NASCAR officials to have the car pushed back.

Busch had the look of a winner in the early going before issues on pit road proved costly to the driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. This was important because Busch remains outside of the top 10 in points and, with one race victory, is in a struggle to get one of the two wild card positions in NASCAR's playoffs.

5. Hornish Continues Solid Effort in Second Fill-In Role

Although he finished a quiet 22nd after starting 24th, Sam Hornish Jr. provided Penske Racing with a solid effort as A.J. Allmendinger remains suspended for failing a random drug test. Allmendinger will have his B sample tested and will have an attorney present at the time of the testing. But while all of this plays out, Hornish provides the team with positive attention.

"Hey, I got to drive a Cup car two more times; I'm not disappointed at all," Hornish said. "I wish both races had gone a little better but the first one, we couldn't do anything about Daytona and the tire coming apart," Hornish said. "This one, I think the big thing was that we didn't really know what we wanted out of the car and I didn't know what I wanted for this first race back in the Cup car because I haven't driven on this flat of a track for quite a while. It's definitely a lot different than what the Nationwide cars are. I'm really grateful to Penske Racing and Shell/Pennzoil for giving me the opportunity."

Sure, he isn't flamboyant but after dealing with the histrionics of Kurt Busch that culminated with his dismissal as driver last December only to have his replacement suspended for failing a drug test, Penske Racing doesn't need any more drama. Hornish was perhaps the greatest driver ever developed from the old Indy Racing League, before it became the current IZOD IndyCar Series, with three series championships and 19 wins, including the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

And while his initial foray into Sprint Cup from 2008-2010 was not successful, Hornish's time as a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series has made him much more competent and confident behind the wheel of the No. 22 Cup car.

Although Penske Racing officials have stood by Allmendinger during his suspension, if the B sample fails and puts that driver on indefinite suspension then Sam is the right man to take over that ride.