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Johnson, Hamlin display championship mettle at Loudon

July 17, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Drivers each overcome adversity at New Hampshire to post top-five finishes

LOUDON, N.H. -- One driver sat slumped against the pit-road wall. The other stood tall near his car, just a dozen feet or so away.

Their post-race dispositions matched their physical appearances, despite the fact that one drove his car to a third-place finish and the other was close behind, placing fifth in Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In the process of overcoming great adversity to do so, both Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin displayed why the top two championship contenders from a year ago are beginning to show that same type of contending mettle in 2011.

"Then with the 42, I don't think the three times he's wrecked me it's been intentional. But he's out of mulligans. I've had enough."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

They simply had opposite reactions to what transpired Sunday.

* Post-Race Reactions | Press Pass: Hamlin | Race Rewind

Johnson, who rallied to finish fifth after enduring both a loose lug nut on pit road and a later spin courtesy of Juan Montoya, seemed upset with his day and his entire weekend. He was battling Kurt Busch for the lead on Lap 217 of the 301-lap event when a caution for debris came out and he subsequently suffered the loose lug-nut incident on pit road -- causing him to drop him from second to 35th.

Then he drove his way all the way back up to sixth, only to fall back to 28th again after taking contact from Montoya. He eventually fell all the way to 33rd before driving up to fifth over the final 61 laps.

"We started off with a bad qualifying effort on Friday, and we paid the price for that on pit road and in track position at the start," said Johnson, the five-time defending Cup champion. "Then with the 42 [car driven by Montoya], I don't think the three times he's wrecked me it's been intentional. But he's out of mulligans. I've had enough of, 'Hey, I'm sorry you're spun out.' It's happened way too often, so hopefully we can get that corrected.

"Still, with all that stuff going on, we got a pretty good finish. We did it the hard way by passing a bunch of cars."

Hamlin also spun (watch video) en route to his ultimate finish. But he said he was proud of the fact that neither he nor anyone else on his No. 11 Toyota team panicked over it.

"We did it last time here, too. I think Carl [Edwards] spun us halfway through the [previous] race [at NHMS] and we came back to finish second," Hamlin said. "This was just one of those days when you had sort of a bad day, but it feels good to come out with a finish like this on a day when you'd typically struggle if you had all that happen."

Hamlin was able to make it to the finish because he started saving fuel early and throughout his final run following the last pit stop.

"We had to do some different kind of strategy to get the kind of day we wanted," Hamlin said. "We fought for track position all day. We knew our car was good, but we had absolutely no track position. So we had to do what we had to do -- and that was save fuel.

"It's tough when you want to run a guy like [eventual race winner] Ryan [Newman] down there at the end, but you've got your crew chief screaming at you that you've got to slow down and save fuel. I was doing it the whole last run, so I'd be interested to see how much [gas] we have left. If we can see where we're at with that, maybe next time I'm in a situation like that we can run a little bit harder."

While Hamlin seemed pleased with the speed his car was able to generate, Johnson, again, felt exactly the opposite about his No. 48 Chevrolet.

"We just didn't have speed [during practice and qualifying on Friday]. It was frustrating," Johnson said. "We would run some good laps and from a fuel standpoint, the balance was good -- but we were slow. And that's the worst kind of deficit you can have. If there is a dramatic loose or tight condition, it's easy. You just go to work.

"For us at this point we're just trying to build over 11th place. ... We want to be very careful to keep ourselves in that top 10."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"This started toward the end of the Chase last year. We'd run as hard as we could and just didn't have the speed."

Um, he still was good enough to win that fifth consecutive championship last year. But when it was suggested that championships often are won by making decent days out of seemingly bad ones, such as he did Sunday, Johnson still struggled to find that silver lining.

He said the up-and-down nature of his team's performance during Sunday's race likely won't be good enough to claim a sixth consecutive title if the pattern continues during the final seven regular-season races and the last 10 of the year that comprise the Chase.

"Well, you look at the result and there's nothing to complain about there. We made up a lot of points on guys that were ahead of us [Sunday]," said Johnson, who sits second in the point standings, seven behind new leader Carl Edwards. "But if you look at the journey and plotted a chart of where we started to where we finished, that thing's all over the place -- and we can't have that. I'm in harm's way week in and week out, trying to get to the front.

"And when it comes to the Chase, you need to dodge all those wild situations as often as possible. Qualifying poorly and having bad things happen that affect your track position are not the path to a championship."

Hamlin remained a precarious 10th in points, as the top 10 and two wild cards (drivers with the most wins outside the top 10 but inside the top 20 in points) will make up the Chase participants this year. Hamlin is one of eight different drivers with one win apiece.

"For us at this point we're just trying to build over 11th place," Hamlin said. "Obviously now with Ryan getting a win, he's in the position to get a wild card if he drops down out of the top 10. So we want to be very careful to keep ourselves in that top 10."

Johnson remains well inside the top 10. But you would not have known it by his demeanor just after climbing from the car, exhausted and drenched in sweat, on Sunday.

Asked again if it wasn't true championships are won by taking bad days and turning them into good finishes as he was able to do Sunday, Johnson grimaced and replied: "I guess I could have that approach. But I guess I'm running out of patience as far as doing what I have to do on race days. Everyone on our team has been very patient in trying to correct some things. But we're getting down to crunch time now. We've got to make something happen."