LOUDON, N.H. – It's an interesting question when it comes to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, particularly at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
When a track is burdened with the notion that it is a place “where you can't pass,” is it because the track really is that difficult to race on with other cars around you – or does it simply become an excuse, a crutch that drivers and teams can use when then aren't able to hit on the right setup?
For much of Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire, it appeared the former was the case.
The first quarter of the event produced a green flag run featuring battles for position and several drivers moving up through the field. Brad Keselowski started 22nd in the field and rolled all the way into the Top-10, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. went from ninth on the grid to the Top-5.
But once the cars pitted for fuel, tires and a few adjustments, the battles for position ceased on the track. The next 150 laps looked, quite frankly, like a practice session.
It looked like the track notorious for being impossible to pass on.
Denny Hamlin, though, might have debunked that myth single-handedly.
He went from 14th to second in a matter of just 66 laps to close out the race – after some miscommunication with crew chief Darian Grubb cost him 13 positions on the track when he pitted for four tires under the final caution and not just two like everybody who exited pit road ahead of him.
From there, Hamlin – granted, with better rubber than most, whittled nearly two-tenths of a second a lap off eventual winner Kasey Kahne's lead as he chased him to the checkered flag.
“You try to be optimistic, but you know pretty much your chances of winning are pretty much taken away if there's no (late) cautions,” Hamlin said of giving away so much ground. “If we would have had just one caution somewhere in the mix, somewhere along the line, we would be sitting in Victory Lane.”
Hamlin, though, believed he had the car that would win the race – almost until the checkered flag. And he knew his car was good enough to pass others, even if he fell behind by a few spots.
“We really don't show everything we have right off the bat,” Hamlin said of dominating the middle stages of Sunday's race. “There's really not a moment where I felt like we didn't have a good car.”
Not everybody felt that way, obviously.
Jeff Gordon was strong early, going from eighth at the start to running as high as second. When he took a risk to get track position and stayed out under a Lap 90 caution to inherit the lead, he soon lost ground he never made up.
Gordon thought maybe a new tire compound this weekend hindered the efforts of some and made track position even more crucial than normal here.
“This tire, I tell you, Goodyear has got to go back to the drawing board,” Gordon said. “They came here with a new tire, and it is not a very good tire. I think they know it. I'm hoping they can come up with something a little bit better than this.”
“Well, this track is hard to pass, anyway,” said third-place finisher Clint Bowyer, a two-time New Hampshire winner.
But Bowyer also broke down some of the challenges facing teams – including the new tire – which perhaps shed light on how easily that can become a convenient excuse for many in the garage.
“It's hard to roll the center (of the corner) better than the next guy and turn underneath somebody when they have that middle line – the preferred line – because of the banking,” Bowyer said. “On the bottom line, there's not enough banking to complete the pass unless you're really a lot better than them. That less stagger (in the new tire this weekend) just makes it harder to roll the center.
“Ultimately, I think the less stagger just brought out less passing.”
Not surprisingly, though, Hamlin was happy enough with his race car and its handling around other competitors that he was already looking forward to coming back to New Hampshire in September for the second race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“I feel like it was a little bit harder to pass than what it had been in years past, but the speeds were higher,” Hamlin said. “It's hard to figure out how the speeds were higher, yet the tires didn't fall off... Overall, I think the tire was fine, and it's obviously something they'll probably come back with.”
And when they do, you can bet Hamlin, Bowyer and others will be able to pass on the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. For the rest of them, they might just find a convenient excuse to latch onto when they can't keep up.