LOUDON, N.H. — During Friday’s practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, virtual white flags waved from the windows of every car save for Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota Camry.
“Right now,’’ Jeff Gordon said prior to Friday’s qualifying session, “we’re all racing for second, based on what I saw in practice.’’
But practice doesn’t mean perfect.
In practice, Hamlin had put up a 134.820 mile-per-hour hot lap, class of the field.
But during qualifying, the favorite for Sunday’s Sylvania 300 looked like just another rush-hour commuter on Route 128.
Hamlin hobbled around the track at 131.633 m.p.h. At that speed, he might as well have been lugging Costco groceries with a mattress tied atop his vehicle.
After qualifying, Hamlin acknowledged the team had mistakenly set up the No. 11 with lower race-ready tire pressures instead of Goodyears properly inflated for qualifying.
In Saturday’s final practice, Hamlin roared around the track at 132.053 m.p.h., fastest time of the session. But instead of leading the pack to the green Sunday, the NHMS strongman will have to nudge past 31 cars. Given how difficult it is to pass at NHMS, 300 miles may not be enough for Hamlin to complete the task.
Consider a haul between the Zakim Bridge and Sagamore Bridge on a Friday afternoon in July. It is the kind of traffic Hamlin will have to fight.
“It can be done,’’ said defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. “We have done it, but it makes for a long, hard day.
“It’s a shorter race. We only have 300 laps here to get it done. I like the length of the race. But if you qualify badly, you’ve got to get a lot done in a lot quicker and shorter amount of time.’’
Race fortune — wrecks, pit stops, fuel mileage — may roll in Hamlin’s favor. But if the Joe Gibbs Racing driver (who is 15 points behind Chase leader Brad Keselowski) falls short, his qualifying gaffe will open lanes for other contenders.
Jeff Gordon (12th in points) will start from the pole; he recorded the 15th-fastest lap in Saturday’s practice. Stewart (third) will be two cars behind Gordon when the green flag drops. Keselowski will be in 15th position. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge Charger, last week’s winner at Chicagoland Speedway, finished second in last year’s Sylvania 300.
“I’m thrilled to be where we are right now, not just in the standings but in general,’’ Keselowski said. “Just the vibe and the emotions you see in people you’re surrounded with.
“I’m just really proud of everybody I’m around, really thankful for the opportunities that I have and the people I’m surrounded with. I think we’re a pretty happy group right now.’’
The Sylvania 300 is the second of the 10 Chase races. Because there are eight dates remaining, the Chase drivers — save for Gordon, who crinkled his No. 24 Chevrolet Impala in last week’s Geico 400 — will practice caution over abandon. A bad day in Loudon could rub out any hopes of celebrating in Homestead Nov. 18 upon the season’s conclusion.
In 2010, Clint Bowyer learned that the hard way. On Sept. 19, Bowyer believed he was the Chaser to beat after leading 177 laps and winning the Sylvania 300. Three days later, he was on the scrap heap.
NASCAR had red-flagged Bowyer’s ride in postrace inspection, and on Sept. 22, the sanctioning body stripped him of 150 points. It was the equivalent of fitting a Denver boot on one of Bowyer’s tires.
On Sunday, Bowyer is aiming for a brighter outcome. The No. 15 Toyota Camry is sixth in the standings, 15 points behind Keselowski. Bowyer, who will start from the 12th spot, has won twice at NHMS. If he can bank maximum points in Loudon, he can buy himself some wiggle room later in the Chase, when wild cards such as Talladega and Martinsville can turn the standings upside-down.
“Certainly this is one of my good racetracks,’’ Bowyer said. “It’s very important to capitalize on that and get myself closer to the front. This is a track where we can gain some ground. We need to make sure we can do that.’’
Last year, the Sylvania 300 winner became the champion. On Sept. 25, 2011, Stewart swiped the checkered flag at NHMS. Two months later, the No. 14 team claimed the Cup.
Stewart could turn the trick again. His Impala (130.977 m.p.h.) was eighth-fastest in Saturday’s practice. Stewart, a three-time NHMS winner, will have a stout car and good track position in his favor.
Stewart and the other Chasers will need to separate themselves from Jimmie Johnson. The five-time champ, 3 points behind Keselowski, has some of his best tracks remaining: Dover (seven career wins), Charlotte (six), and Martinsville (six).
“This is a great racetrack for us,’’ said Johnson, who has won three times at Loudon. “I feel like all the tracks in the Chase are strong for the No. 48 team.’’
The bogey in the mix is Kyle Busch. The No. 18 Toyota Camry failed to make the Chase, but Busch turned the second-fastest lap in qualifying on Friday. He was fourth-fastest in Saturday’s practice and has one career NHMS win.