LOUDON, N.H. — There seemed to be no catching Denny Hamlin. There was a scant stretch in which Jimmie Johnson thought he had a shot to pull ahead, but mostly he knew that Hamlin was going to win Sunday’s Sylvania 300. Hamlin’s car was just too good.
As Johnson said, “I had a little bit of hope for just a quarter of a lap there. And then it was like, ‘Uh-oh, don’t lose second.’ ”
He didn’t, though he had gotten caught on paving seams in his attempt to challenge Hamlin, allowing third-place finisher Jeff Gordon to get close out of the final caution on Laps 274 to 277.
Given Hamlin’s car and performance, Johnson was content with his second-place finish, which pushed him into first place in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, excellent position for a driver whose favorite tracks are ahead of him in the run to the championship.
“I certainly look at good tracks and want to capitalize,” said Johnson, who moved 1 point ahead of Brad Keselowski with 2,096. “I think the 11 [Hamlin] had that on their mind this weekend and came in here and executed and did a great job.
“This track’s been hit or miss for us over the years; so to come out of here in second, I’m real happy with today. We didn’t have anything for the 11; I wish we did.”
Dover is next weekend, a track where Johnson is one of the best ever.
With his win there earlier this season, Johnson tied David Pearson and Richard Petty for the most wins at the track with seven in his career.
Johnson had started back in the pack at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 20th — though not as far back as Hamlin in 32d — but he moved up quickly. By Lap 75, Johnson found himself in sixth place, he moved to fourth at Lap 150, and shot up to second at Lap 225.
“Just worked my way through traffic,” Johnson said. “Didn’t have any big moments, but it was tough to pass. And the one thing I had working for me was that our car had a lot of speed and I would catch someone quickly where they wouldn’t put up too big of a fight.”
He added that he found himself in second place based on “some good adjustments, good pit stops and a good car, and we just kind of hung out there all day.”
Part of making it through at NHMS was just to stay out of trouble on a track that has not been a winner, generally, for Johnson. He has three wins at the track, but also an average finish of 9.9.
“I thought the No. 48 [Johnson] did a great job today to come from deep in the field,” said Gordon.
“His car, I know the setup and he drove the heck out of it. I thought that was a great effort. That is the kind of effort that wins championships, so we will see where that takes them.”
As Johnson pointed out multiple times, his team left just 7 points on the table in the first two Chase races, after also finishing second in last week’s Geico 400 in Chicago.
And the races in the rest of the Chase, outside of the one in Talladega in two weeks, could help Johnson in his attempt to win a sixth championship.
“I feel really good,” Johnson said. “We have tracks that have been great to the 48 for a lot of years, tracks that we were very successful at in the spring events.”
That bodes well for Johnson.
There’s the history, the confidence, the cars. As Gordon said, those two second-place finishes in the first two Chase races certainly have sent a message to the rest of the field.
“They are just so strong, you don’t expect them to make mistakes,” Gordon said. “When they are in this position, you expect them to be strong week in and week out, and they are going to be tough to beat. They are just that good.
“We have seen others make a run at them, but when they are in this kind of zone, they have not been beat.”
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.