LOUDON, N.H. (AP) – Denny Hamlin was so nervous during the last few laps of Sunday’s NASCAR Nextel Cup race at New Hampshire International Speedway that his right foot was shaking on the gas pedal.
Hamlin, who believes he needs race wins to be a serious contender for his first Cup championship, was out front, thanks to a late-race gamble on a two-tire stop. And four-time series champion Jeff Gordon was looming close in his mirrors.
“You see Jeff coming and you’re trying your best to not be the guy who chokes at the end,” Hamlin said.
Last year’s top rookie had his hands full at the end, trying to keep his No. 11 Chevrolet out of the wall and ahead of Gordon’s No. 24.
“I was all over the track those last two laps,” he said. “I was basically just trying not to give up the bottom.”
Hamlin pulled it off, beating the series points leader to the finish line by 0.068 seconds – less than a car length – to earn his third career victory and first since last July at Pocono.
Hamlin came into the race second in points, but he’s been frustrated, leading laps and contending without being able to take a checkered flag in the first 16 races.
It appeared he would fall short again this time, with Martin Truex Jr., Gordon and Truex’s teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., all running ahead of Hamlin late in the race.
But the leaders made their final scheduled pit stops on lap 255 during a caution period and Hamlin was the only one of the quartet to take two fresh tires instead of four. He vaulted from fourth to first and stayed out front to the end of the Lenox Industrial Tools 300.
“We were back in sixth and seventh most of the day and the only shot we had was to get track position,” said Hamlin, who now has seven top fives and 11 top 10s this season. “You know, two tires worked for us earlier (in the race) and we kind of made a note that anything inside of 120 laps to go we were going to do two.”
Hamlin has said he and his team were working hard to win races because the 12 drivers who qualify for this year’s 10-race Chase for the championship will be seeded, with each driver getting 10 extra points for each win during the 26-race regular season.
Both Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, fourth in the points, have four wins already this season.
That was on Hamlin’s mind before his final stop on Sunday.
“We chose to take the two (tires) because we have a decent enough lead on 12th (place) right now that we feel we can take those little extra risks,” Hamlin said. “And this risk, the reward was going to be much bigger than the consequences if it didn’t work.
“For us, it’s about momentum. We’ve seen what it’s done for the 1 car and we think it’s going to do the same for us.”
He was referring to Truex, who got his first Cup win last month in Dover and has three more top-three finishes in the four races since the Delaware race, including Sunday’s third-place run.
While Hamlin worked hard to stay out front, Gordon was working over Truex, trying hard to get by the second-place car. The two Chevrolets spent a lot of time side-by-side and nose-to-tail until Gordon finally squeezed past seven laps from the end of the 300-lap race on the 1.058-mile oval.
Gordon, racing with an interim crew chief after NASCAR suspended both his and teammate Jimmie Johnson’s crew chiefs for six weeks after their teams were caught the previous week at Sonoma with illegally modified front fenders, nearly chased down Hamlin.
He got right up on the rear bumper of the leader’s Chevy on the final turn. But Hamlin held on to win in the eighth race and New Hampshire debut for NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow.
“You can’t overdrive this car,” Gordon said of the bigger, bulkier COT. “The harder I tried to drive, the slower I went.
“I fought so hard with Martin there. It was a great battle and I had a lot of fun racing with him. But we used up a lot of our stuff, so it took me a couple of laps once I got in front of him to get readjusted and get back in my rhythm.”
Asked if he thought he could still catch Hamlin, Gordon said, “We were running Denny down and he was doing a great job at the end. Those last two laps he started watching his mirror and I thought we had a shot at him.”
“Another almost, could of been day,” said a disappointed Truex. “Six months ago I’d have been begging for a third, but … I thought we had the car there toward the end.”
Earnhardt wound up fourth followed by Johnson and Jeff Green, the only other leader who gambled on changing two tires on the final stop. Green jumped from 13th to fourth and stayed with the leaders to the end.