Hamlin peaking at right time after dominating at New Hampshire
There is something exquisite about seeing a masterful performance even if it overwhelms an event.
There were few memorable moments from Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire and one could blame Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team. Hamlin's car was so strong that it took away much of the mystery of the finish. Even Hamlin knew.
He knew last weekend. Shortly after running out of fuel because of a pit-road mistake in the opening race of the Chase at Chicagoland Speedway, Hamlin proclaimed on Twitter that "we will win" the New Hampshire race.
He knew about 60 laps into Sunday's race. It was so easy to move from his 32nd starting spot to inside the top five that no one could challenge him. Or come close.
"My job was relatively easy," said Hamlin, who led 193 of 300 laps. "Just make sure I didn't make any enemies on the way to the front."
About his only bobble was his statement that he would win. He backed off calling it a guarantee Friday, later confessing he didn't want to upset his competitors because he worried they would make his climb to the front unusually difficult.
It didn't matter on his Sunday drive to a series-best fifth victory of the season. Nothing impeded his charge.
When he exited his car on the front stretch, Hamlin pointed to the crowd and swung an imaginary bat, mimicking Babe Ruth's called shot.
The moment, though, can be savored only briefly. Eight races remain and one of the Chase's toughest challenges awaits Hamlin.
And now on to the five things we learned at New Hampshire ...
Hamlin is peaking at the right time after scoring his third victory in the last five races. Hamlin wonders what might have been had rain not altered the Richmond race earlier this month -- he led 202 of 400 laps but finished 18th. Had things gone differently he would have four victories in the last five.
Hamlin, who moved to third in the standings Sunday, credits his recent success to preparation.
"We have spent a lot of time at Joe Gibbs Racing preparing for Chases," he said after his 22nd career Cup victory. "We always stay about a year ahead of schedule as far as our mindset and things that we work on. I think this has been something in the works. You try to get through the regular season as best you can, get those wins when you can, but you want to bring your best cars and everything go your way this time of the year.
"As a driver, I feel like I step up this time of the year. This is the time to perform."
Now, we'll see if he can do it this week when the series heads to Dover, which Hamlin admits is his weakest track in the Chase.
He has just two top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts on the 1-mile banked oval.
"People have their Achilles heel and for me, in the course of my career, Dover has been it," Hamlin said. "I've won in Nationwide there somehow. Everyone else must have wrecked or something. I've just got to figure out what it takes in Cup."
For as much as Hamlin celebrated, a feeling of dread would be understandable in the garage after Sunday's race. And it had nothing to do with Hamlin's performance.
Jimmie Johnson finished second and took the points lead from Brad Keselowski. Johnson leads Keselowski by one point and Hamlin by seven.
It would be easy to argue that one point is no great difference, but some will see that point as a larger barrier because of who holds the advantage.
They'll see Johnson in the lead heading into one of his best tracks in the Chase. While one can argue that he's pretty good at nearly all the Chase tracks, Dover is the one he's dominated the most.
He's won four of the last seven races there and led nearly 60 percent of the 2,800 laps run during that stretch.
If anybody could boast they would win at Dover, it is Johnson. Instead, he didn't Sunday. Then again, he doesn't need to because others will likely do it for him, such is Johnson's aura in the Chase.
"You get to the Chase, you need to execute on your great tracks and get the results you should there, and then on your tracks that aren't your best, you still have to have good days," Johnson said.
He clearly had the second-best car Sunday.
"We just did all we could," Johnson said. "We just missed a little bit of speed and (Hamlin) seemed to have everybody covered."
That's how Johnson's competitors might be talking about him next weekend.
Jeff Gordon's third-place finish only makes his crash last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway hurt more.
Gordon was running toward the front when his throttle stuck and he crashed last week. Instead of a likely top-five finish, he placed 35th. Even with Sunday's strong run, Gordon remains last in the 12-driver Chase field. He's 45 points behind Johnson -- nearly a full race out of the lead.
"We are just going to fight from here on out and try to get some consistent finishes and win races and fight and battle," Gordon said. "This team has gotten kind of used to this stuff all year long. We just have had everything thrown at us this year, and I think it's made us stronger and more prepared to handle these type of things, even when the pressure is on for the championship."
Although Brad Keselowski lost the points lead with his sixth-place finish, he isn't overwhelmed by his situation.
Keselowski has likened the Chase to a championship fight, so trailing by Johnson by one point isn't worrisome at this point.
"We'd like to be just a little bit faster than where we were today but this is what a championship team does," Keselowski said after his 11th top-10 finish in the last 12 races. "They take weekends where they're not the best and they make something out of it."
It's up to him and his team to prove they can do that for the next eight races.
Clint Bowyer spent much of Sunday's racing complaining on his radio about how loose his car was. Still, he finished fourth and, along with Kasey Kahne, stands just 15 points behind Johnson.
Bowyer is one not to overlook in this Chase. He's had strong runs deep in the Chase previous years. It was clear that Hamlin had the best car and that the Hendrick Motorsports stable was next. Bowyer was best of the rest.
"There's a lot of racing left," Bowyer said. "Certainly, we're still in the thing -- just got to keep these solid finishes coming."