NASCAR | Denny Hamlin brings JGR some needed relief

Driver Denny Hamlin, right, is chased by a crew member holding a lobster after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 301 auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H., Sunday, July 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/AP photo

It was only a matter of time before Joe Gibbs Racing broke through, wasn’t it? The four-time NASCAR championship-winning team ended a winless drought that dated to last year’s fall Texas race when Denny Hamlin held on to take Sunday’s Monster Energy series event at New Hampshire. Here are five takeaways from Loudon:

Hamlin holds off charge

Hamlin led the final 34 laps, giving JGR its first win of 2017 and most likely clinching a spot in the 10-race playoffs (there is still a mathematical possibility of more than 16 winners in the first 26 races, thus ensuring that at least one winner won’t make the postseason, but it seems unlikely). Hamlin passed teammate Matt Kenseth, who took only two tires on the final pit stop, shortly after the restart on Lap 267 of 301. Kenseth held off Kyle Larson for second for a while, giving Hamlin the cushion he needed to deny a fast-charging Larson in the final laps.

Bringing it in a backup

Hamlin won in a backup car after wrecking his primary No. 11 Toyota machine in Friday’s practice. “I put us behind the 8-ball on Friday, but it’s cool to win one like this,” Hamlin said after putting on such a show in his celebratory postrace burnout that he blew out his left rear tire. As for the unusual 20-race winless run for JGR, Hamlin said, “It’s definitely been tough, but it’s not from a lack of trying.”

Larson surges again

Last week at Kentucky Speedway, Larson finished second after starting 40th because his car didn’t pass inspection for his qualifying attempt. At Loudon, it was pretty much a carbon copy: The Chip Ganassi Racing driver started last in the 39-car field because his car failed inspection moments after he had run what would have been a pole-winning time. In the race, he surged through the field to finish second again.

Busch stumbles on entry

Kyle Busch has had major problems during pit stops lately, usually with lug nuts not being properly tightened on his JGR Toyota by his crew. Sunday, Busch’s woes were of his own doing as he incurred two penalties for being too fast entering the pits. The second penalty knocked him back to 26th for the final restart and, despite running strong all day (leading 95 laps and with an average running position of fourth, according to racing-reference.com data), Busch finished 12th.

Even if he does not win a regular-season race, Busch is almost certain to make the playoffs based on points, as he is third behind leader Martin Truex Jr. and Larson. He’s fast every week and has led 953 laps this season; only Truex (1,252) has led more. But Busch won’t last long in the playoffs if the No. 18 bunch keeps making these types of fundamental errors.

Numbers game

Truex once again won a stage and again led the most laps, 137, and wound up third. He said his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota wasn’t quite as strong in the final two stints. … Chase Elliott had the most green-flag passes with 91, and had a consistent day, if not a desirable one: He started 11th, was 12th at mid-race, finished 11th and had an average running position of 11th, according to racing-reference.com. … Aric Almirola was 24th in his first race back for Richard Petty Motorsports after he missed two months with a back injury sustained in a crash at Kansas.

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