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CUP: From Hero To Heartbreak For Hamlin

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The hard thing about NASCAR Sprint Cup racing is that in every race, just one driver wins, while the other 42 don’t win and therefore go home with various levels of frustration.

And there’s no one who had more reason to be frustrated in Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway than Denny Hamlin, who finished second behind Kasey Kahne.

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota clearly was the class of the field at New Hampshire, leading 150 of the first 235 laps. In fact, he and teammate Kyle Busch led 222 of those first 235 laps. But pit mistakes cost Hamlin what seemed like a sure victory and Busch a legitimate shot at a win, too.

After dominating the middle stages of the race,

Hamlin pitted from the lead under caution on Lap 235, and as he came down pit road, Hamlin told crew chief Darian Grubb that all needed was tires during the stop. The problem is, Hamlin meant two tires, while what Grubb heard was four tires.

The miscommunication proved to be disastrous: Hamlin came in leading and left pit road 13th, the 12 cars ahead of him all having taken just two tires each. The track went green on Lap 240, leaving Hamlin only 62 laps to get back to the front. And he almost got there.

On Lap 248, Hamlin overtook Jeff Gordon for eighth place. Ten laps later, he passed Greg Biffle for fifth. On Lap 263, he got past Kevin Harvick for fourth and on Lap 273, he went under Dale Earnhardt Jr. for third place.

Hamlin dispatched Clint Bowyer for second place on Lap 278, leaving him 24 laps to try to catch and pass Kahne. On Lap 280, Kahne’s lead was 3.052 seconds, but Hamlin quickly and forcefully cut into it.

The margin was down to 1.852 seconds on Lap 292 and all the way down to 0.938 seconds three laps later.

Alas, it was not to be. Hamlin made a heroic charge as lapped traffic briefly held Kahne up, but his challenge ended when Hamlin overdrove his car into Turn 3 on the race’s penultimate lap and slowed dramatically, finishing 2.738 seconds behind Kahne.

Still, it was a tremendous display of driving by Hamlin and speed in the car, with Hamlin moving up two places to fifth in points. For most drivers, that would have made for a great day. But when you have the best car and don’t win, not so much.

And at least Hamlin could feel consoled about his fifth top-two finish of the season.

Not so for teammate Kyle Busch.

After leading the first 66 laps of the race, Busch’s crew had a terrible pit stop, which he compounded by getting a pit-road speeding penalty. After that, he had another bad pit stop and ended the race 17th. Busch now holds the second wild-card spot, just nine points ahead of Ryan Newman.

“We tried to play catch-up all race long and when you play catch-up, you gamble,” said Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers.

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.