Hamlin promises redemption on Twitter as Keselowski stays quiet
After finishing 16th, Denny Hamlin promises followers that he'll win next week
Brad Keselowski could have chattered about competitors but chose to stay quiet
Dale Earnhardt remained consistent in Chicago, as he has all season, finishing 8th
Whether confidence, cockiness or calculating, it doesn't matter why Denny Hamlin posted what he did on Twitter after Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway. It's that he did.
The sting of a top-10 run ending when he ran out of fuel before the checkered flag and finished 16th combined with his eviction from the points lead -- he trails race winner and series leader Brad Keselowski by 15 points -- sent Hamlin to Twitter to motivate and reassure.
Not afraid of issuing bold statements, Hamlin told his 175,000-plus followers what to expect this week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Such predictions are often foolish in NASCAR, where there are 42 other competitors to beat. Although maybe only 10 have a reasonable chance of winning many weekends, the odds of making good on such a promise are still much worse than a football, basketball or baseball player who only has to defeat one team to make their guarantee come true.
With the way Hamlin raced at New Hampshire in July, his tweet is not an outlandish declaration. He was in position to win that race, but a miscommunication with crew chief Darian Grubb led to a four-tire change, instead of a two-tire change, which dropped Hamlin deep in the field. Hamlin's frantic late-race drive, one of the most exciting all season, earned him a runner-up spot to Kasey Kahne.
Seemingly minor mistakes often define the Chase. Greg Biffle remains haunted by the loose lug nut that cost him the title in 2005. Fuel-mileage issues at Phoenix all but took the 2010 title from Hamlin. Dale Earnhardt Jr. still ponders the pass he attempted late at Atlanta in 2004 that caused him to wreck and impact his title hopes.
With nine races left, Hamlin has time to overcome Sunday's finish. He's talked about not dwelling on what happens in the Chase but looking ahead. Now can he deliver?
Brad Keselowski has been known to stir things up by what he says. It was only a month ago that he mentioned the tricks Hendrick Motorsports seemed to be employing to make their cars better. Coincidence or not, NASCAR later issued a technical bulletin limiting what teams could do to the rear of their cars.
After running away from Jimmie Johnson in the final laps to win Sunday, Keselowski could have crowed about beating a Hendrick car and taking the points lead. Instead, Keselowski knew this wasn't the time to antagonize the Hendrick teams, especially with one of Johnson's teammates, Kasey Kahne, finishing third and Dale Earnhardt Jr. placing eighth. Jeff Gordon also ran well, and Hendrick often had all four cars in the top 10 until Gordon crashed.
"Any time you win, it's a bit of a mission accomplished for that particular weekend, but the Chase isn't about one particular weekend, it's about 10, and there's a long road to hoe,'' Keselowski said.
Winning the opening race in the Chase doesn't guarantee what a team will do the remaining nine weeks but it provides a hint. Four of the last five years the winner of the first Chase race went on to finish in the top three in points. Twice the winner won the championship (Tony Stewart in 2011 and Kurt Busch in 2004).
What's intriguing about Keselowski is how he and crew chief Paul Wolfe work together. They're not afraid to use a different pit strategy than most teams during a race, like the one they used Sunday.
When most took two tires on the first caution-flag pit stop, Keselowski took four. He drove from eighth to second before the next caution. That's when Keselowski changed two tires while most of the field took four tires. The strategy put Keselowski into the lead, where he stayed for the rest of the day.
And this approach is not a new way of calling races for Keselowski's team.
They were on a different pit cycle at Indianapolis, which put them in the lead at times, and it would have helped them finish better than ninth had it not been for contact with Regan Smith on a restart and a slow pit stop.
They also went on a different pit cycle with a few other teams at Michigan. With the help of a fast pit stop late in the race, they took the lead from Johnson, causing crew chief Chad Knaus to say on the radio, "I don't know how they pulled it off, but they did. I really, really for the life of me don't know."
Johnson eventually passed Keselowski for the lead and was headed for the win when his engine blew in the final laps, and Keselowski finished second to Greg Biffle. That finish provided him the platform to talk about Hendrick's cars. Sunday, though, there was no need to do so. Winning and taking the points lead said enough.
Consistency has been a hallmark of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s season, and it continued at Chicagoland. His eighth-place finish Sunday was his 18th top-10 finish of the year, which tied Jimmie Johnson for the best in the series. Earnhardt has credited crew chief Steve Letarte with making the right calls to help him gain positions late in races. On Sunday Earnhardt gained five spots over the final 100 laps. Two weeks ago at Atlanta Earnhardt gained 11 spots in the last 100 laps to finish seventh. He gained five spots in the last 100 laps at Bristol to finish 12th.
However Earnhardt has been outside the top 10 with 100 laps to go in those races, and no one likes to be chasing that late in a race.
Earnhardt's run Sunday can be applauded after he started at the rear of the field for changing engines, but he didn't want to hear any accolades afterward.
"To win the championship, we're going to have to turn days like that, those kind of mistakes, around into wins and top threes,'' Earnhardt said. "I just know we need to be great and I really believe we've got a shot at winning the championship."
Matt Kenseth finished 18th Sunday and fell to 11th in the standings, 26 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski. This marks the third consecutive year Kenseth has made the Chase and been 10th or worse after the opening Chase race. NASCAR travels next to New Hampshire, where Kenseth finished 13th in July and has had one top-10 finish in his last nine starts there.
Tony Stewart is third in the standings with 2,048 points. After last year's win at Chicago, Stewart had 2,047 points.
Jimmie Johnson's second-place finish marked the first time the chassis he drove had been defeated this year. He drove that chassis to wins at Dover and Indianapolis earlier this season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 10 in all seven races on 1.5-mile speedways this season, and he's the only Chase contender to do so. Four more 1.5-mile races remain (Charlotte, Kansas, Texas and Homestead).
Chicago marked the ninth time in the last 11 races the driver who led the most laps did not win. Johnson led 172 of the 267 laps Sunday.
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