Denny Hamlin had a strong car early on in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Hamlin, led 92 laps on the day and earned a stage win in Stage 1. Unfortunately for him, Brad Keselowski had just a better car.
Keselowski, led a race-high 184 of 301 laps and passed Hamlin for the lead on Lap 220. He’d lead the rest of the way while Hamlin had to settle for second for the second straight year.
“I don’t think so,” Hamlin said on if he had anything for Keselowski in the end. “I mean, if I would have, I would have gone up there and passed him.
“We were just barely a little slower than he was for most of the day. We could make some really good moves on the restarts and whatnot. Overall I just thought that we were a second-place car. That’s kind of how we ended up.”
It was the second straight race these two were battling for the win. Hamlin, beat Keselowski at Kansas last week in Kansas. This week, they combined to lead all but 25 laps and changed the lead with each other 13 times.
“It felt like short-track racing, half mile short-track racing,” Hamlin said of having fun while racing Keselowski on Sunday in Loudon. “We were crossing over each other, running into each other, knocking each other up the racetrack, slide jobs in the middle of the corner. It was fun racing those guys. They were very, very deserving today. Happy for them.
“You hate to have a fast car and you don’t finish it off. But I thought obviously the two best cars finished 1-2 today. They got the better end of us. Overall just the racing part of it, I was just having a good time there racing on the short run. Even that long run, the first stage, with the Penske cars, it was fun.”
The runner up is encouraging for Hamlin he says too, simply because this is the first short flat track that they have some data for some playoff tracks.
“I’m encouraged by the run,” said Hamlin. They is the first short flat track that we can build setups for other tracks like Richmond and Phoenix, the championship race at Phoenix. I wrecked out of there in the first run in the spring. We haven’t run Richmond yet.
“This is probably one of the biggest questions marks we were going to have as a race team with our setup and our simulation going into a race. I know Chris was kind of worried about it. He’s always optimistic but he was a little worried we hadn’t had really truly a baseline to build a setup off of.
“We were a second-place car. It’s close, but just got to get a little better.
“That’s one of the things we said after the race, that this is good because now we have something we can build off of. Now it’s up to me to break this thing down and figure out where we need to be better.
“Really got to break it down and figure out where I was getting beat, just start to figure out how we can start to get baselines for other tracks. This is a good step for us. I’m happy that we ran good because the other short flat track we had was Martinsville and we ran terrible. This is a good step for us.”
Now, Hamlin has five runner-up finishes on the Magic Mile tying him with Jeff Gordon for second most all-time. Only Tony Stewart (6) has more.
Hamlin, is looking more and more like THE championship favorite by the week. Over the last nine races, he has six top four finishes. On the season, he has eight top two results, five of them wins and three of those second place finishes. But, half of those top two’s have come in the last seven races too, showing that he’s only getting better.
Despite that, he says he has some work to do because the Toyota camp is lacking.
“Haven’t saw Kyle that much,” Hamlin said of his teammate Kyle Busch who finished last on Sunday and is winless in 20 starts this season. “He has frustrations just like I do, just like Martin does, just like Erik does. We all have our frustrations. We just have the best results, I guess you could say.
“I think we all think that we can be better. I know for a fact that our 11 team could still be better yet. Just because we’re running well doesn’t mean that we’re happy with where we’re at.
“I mean, Joe is not happy. Unless we’re out there winning, he deems that we all need to step up. He looks at all of us when he says ‘step up’.
“I think we did that a little bit at Kansas. Our cars were all a little bit better. We ran 2-3 here. Who knows where Kyle would have been. 20 had a struggling day. I think we’re making baby steps.
“Changes don’t happen overnight. This is all a slow process. If you want to make your cars better, you realize you’re off, it takes months and months to get better.
“Especially with this COVID and everything, these shops work in different shifts, no one is working a full staff, no wind tunnel time. It’s hard to catch up when you are behind.
“I think we are a little behind. It’s just going to take a little more time yet to get to where we need to be. Hopefully it’s September when we really need it.”
This isn’t new for Hamlin to say either. He said he didn’t have the fastest car in his Kansas win. For Busch, even in the races he’s finished in the top three, he always has said they were lacking in the speed department.
Martin Truex Jr notes the tire combos and lack of practice are hurting them.
“It’s really tough to say just because I felt like our issues were things that we probably could have made better with some practice I think,” Truex said. “You just got to hit it. Maybe we need to be a little bit smarter about our simulation, what setups we’re unloading at the racetrack. Maybe figure out something a little bit better with this tire this year. Seems like we’ve struggled a little bit more this year with some tire issues than some other teams.
“I speak for all the drivers at JGR when we say we kind of lack some of the feel we’re looking for in these tires. That may be part of it. Maybe they figured some things out there. We’re still kind of searching on that, I think.”
Busch, cut a tire and crashed on Sunday. While Hamlin and Truex look like contenders again, they don’t think they’re title contenders based off pace.