It seems like whenever the critics start to wonder if Hendrick Motorsports' drivers have lost an edge from their game, they bust out of the gates with all of their drivers nailing solid performances and finishes.
Such was the case with Sunday's running of the LENOX Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway at Loudon, NH. Kasey Kahne backed up his stellar outside pole position run with his second win of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
''We've been pretty tough all year, but we just haven't finished 'em off a lot of the times,'' Kahne said from Victory Lane. ''From here on out, we need some more top 10s and top fives the rest of the way. It doesn't get us in the Chase yet, but it does help with a win today.''
Again, Kahne didn't have an exactly easy path to Victory Lane, as he had to contend once more with Joe Gibbs Racing veteran Denny Hamlin for the win in the closing laps of the race. Much like at Charlotte with the Coca-Cola 600 during Memorial Day Sunday, the two former rookie champions had to carve their way through lap traffic.
Patience had to duel it out with aggression, with Kahne's calculative racing combating against Hamlin's tenacious driving. Ultimately, the Enumclaw, WA native's savvy ways won out, as the pride of Chesterfield, VA drove a bit hard in turn four during the penultimate lap.
Essentially sealing the race for Kahne, Hamlin had to settle for the runner-up spot but considering that he overcame a pit stop miscue, his thoughts were on the big picture, not necessarily his lost opportunity at win number three of the year.
Still, Hamlin knew the pit stop blunder was the key moment for them and the entire complexity of the race outcome.
''It's such a team sport,'' Hamlin said. ''We just had a slight miscommunication and that one little miscommunication will magnify it.''
Crew chief Mike Ford and racer Hamlin seemed to disagree on tire strategy during the final pit stops of the race.
Their miscommunication sent the dominant Dominion State driver from a surefire win to a determined drive outside the top-10 in the closing laps to a second-place finish.
As for Kahne, it was a much needed win for the 32-year-old racer, whose second victory of 2012 adds pressure for the other wild card Chase contenders to make a move before the last regular season race at Richmond, VA in September.
Following a pair of inconsistent efforts at Pocono and Michigan, the win vaults Kahne to the 12th spot in points and more importantly, nabbing that first wild card seed.
His corporate Hendrick Motorsports teammates turned in great finishes, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. coming home fourth, Jeff Gordon in sixth, and Jimmie Johnson placing seventh.
Earnhardt was pleased with his efforts but seemed a bit puzzled at the lack of speed from his No. 88 Chevy following their successful Goodyear tire test in the spring. Gordon wasn't too thrilled or disappointed about his sixth place run but understood that his early season swoon may be too big a hole to climb out for the Chase.
Johnson overcame mid race problems to place seventh, which has become something of a tradition for Team 48's title runs since 2006. After encountering an issue or two like the car's handling fading or a pit road penalty, they seem to churn up their performances to the max.
Michael Waltrip Racing continued their strong 2012 efforts, with driver Clint Bowyer taking home a third place finish while Martin Truex, Jr. came home 11th at his "hometown" track.
Brad Keselowski drove like a beast as he started 22nd and produced a fifth-place effort while Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle, and defending race winner Ryan Newman finished eighth, ninth, and tenth.
Polesitter Kyle Busch's summer of struggles continued once more, as a slow pit stop and a pit road speeding penalty relegated the Las Vegas native to a 24th-place finish.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series takes a weekend off but resumes their exciting summer swing to the Chase for the Cup on July 29 with the 19th running of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Paul Menard looks to duplicate his upset win over Jeff Gordon while Tony Stewart hopes to nab his third hometown victory at the famed 2.5-mile superspeedway.
ESPN returns to the Cup trail with Allen Bestwick, Andy Petree, and Dale Jarrett calling the action from the booth while Dr. Jerry Punch, Shannon Spake, Jamie Little, Vince Welch, and Mike Massaro will cover the action from pit road for the last 16 races of the season.
Here's a look at the projected Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, with the two current wild card seeds:
- Matt Kenseth (Roush-Fenway Ford/1 win)
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Hendrick Chevy/1 win)
- Greg Biffle (Roush-Fenway Ford/1 win)
- Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Chevy/2 wins)
- Denny Hamlin (Gibbs Toyota/2 wins)
- Kevin Harvick (Childress Chevy)
- Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas Chevy/3 wins)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (Waltrip Toyota)
- Clint Bowyer (Waltrip Toyota/1 win)
- Brad Keselowski (Penske Dodge/3 wins)
- Kasey Kahne (Hendrick Chevy/2 wins)
- Kyle Busch (Gibbs Toyota/2 wins)