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Hamlin escapes Dover unscathed

October 01, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Denny Hamlin had to pit for fuel with 10 laps left, costing him a shot at winning the AAA 400 at Dover. (Getty Images)

No. 11 team able to post eighth-place finish, stay in thick of Chase hunt

DOVER, Del. -- After a dominating performance at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, anything seemed possible for Chase contender Denny Hamlin.

But winning at Dover International Speedway -- that would have been nearly too good to be true.

It was.

Having run in the top three all afternoon, Hamlin had no choice but to pit for fuel with 10 laps remaining, surrendering the lead to eventual winner Brad Keselowski.

"I'll take a good-handling race car and big horsepower any day. But right now, between Richmond [18th, despite leading 202 laps] and here, it's costing us a lot of points."

--DENNY HAMLIN

Despite settling for eighth place, Hamlin could have no qualms about the performance of his FedEx Toyota in Sunday's AAA 400.

"Some people have better fuel mileage and not as good handling race cars," Hamlin said.

"I'll take a good-handling race car and big horsepower any day. But right now, between Richmond [18th, despite leading 202 laps] and here, it's costing us a lot of points."

Starting on the pole, Hamlin led the first 34 laps and 39 all told on Sunday.

He stalked Kyle Busch for the majority of the race and his finish kept him in third place, a manageable 16 points behind Keselowski, in the Chase.

"Sixteen points behind -- we can handle that, no problem," Hamlin said. "They're not going to beat us on the track -- that's just plain and simple. We're just too fast right now. Strategy games and the way these cautions are falling, that's what's messing everything up."

As much as anything, Hamlin came out of Sunday just happy to have Dover in his rear view mirror. Historically, Dover has easily been his weakest track among the 10 in the Chase.

Previously, his average finish was 20.5. He'd finished 18th at Dover in June. He'd even consulted a sports psychologist to make sure he was getting the most from himself at the high-banked mile oval.

Sunday's finish was just his third top-10 performance in his last 11 Cup starts at Dover.

So, given the strength of his car, the end result couldn't help but gnaw at him, just a bit.

"It sucks," he said. "I drove as hard as you could drive for 400 laps, then look up and it's like 'Why are we eighth?' That part is frustrating.

"But people have different [fuel] strategies. A top-10 on a race track like this -- to have battled for the win all day -- I'm not going to complain."

Hamlin understands the unpredictability of the game. He knows that saving fuel doesn't always pay.

"[If] a caution flies, all the guys saving and all that get screwed," he said. "We're going to have terrific track position. We're going to blow right by them and it's not going to be an issue. [But] these cautions are flying at inopportune times for some teams and we're one of them."

Hamlin also knows that crew chief Darian Grubb had no choice but to bring him to the pits in the closing laps.

"We were six laps to the bad," Hamlin said. "What do you do? We were just stuck in a tough spot and that's where we ended up.

"I cannot control all this fuel mileage crap. I've gotta drive the race car as fast as I can drive for 400 laps. Wherever I am on the scoring pylon is indicative of how I did, how our fuel mileage did, how fast the pit crew was and and how fast the car is. [Sunday] we got knocked down because fuel mileage was our weak spot."