LOUDON, N.H. — Denny Hamlin sat at the interview table and fiddled with the microphone. He paused. He sighed. He stuttered.
Masked behind the ensuing compliments for his car, his crew, and his sponsors was the obvious conclusion.
The No. 11 Toyota let one get away.
Hamlin was cruising in the lead Sunday when David Reutimann’s No. 10 Chevrolet dropped oil on the track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Hamlin had built a 2.31-second lead, jockeying for position with pole-sitter Kyle Busch and eventual winner Kasey Kahne. And when the day’s third caution went up on Lap 234, Hamlin pitted for a four-tire change.
The problem? Everyone else, including Kahne, changed just two.
“It was just a little miscommunication that turned into a second-place finish,” Hamlin said. “You never know what could have happened on that last restart if we were taking two.”
Heading into the pit stop, with around 45 seconds for communication with his team between when the caution flag went up and when pit road opened, crew chief Darian Grubb radioed Hamlin about his tire grip. Hamlin told Grubb that all he needed was tires, no adjustments. Grubb thought Hamlin meant he needed four tires.
“I made the wrong call,” Grubb said. “I was dead set I was going to do two tires no matter what coming in there, then I let him talk me into it by asking the wrong question. That’s my own fault.”
Hamlin never regained the lead in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. Though he roared back from 13th to second with 15 laps remaining, not even a full set of fresh tires could salvage the costly miscommunication.
“That’s as hard as I can drive and just came up about 5 car lengths too short,” said Hamlin, who led a race-high 150 laps. “Trust me, if I could have got to him, I would have made it real interesting. I just didn’t have enough there at the end and it’s all we could do. We made our bed by taking those four tires.
“Nothing is a given. Even though it was pretty obvious we had a win in the bag if we took two tires, you never know what could have happened. Either way, we had a great day and we’re going to build on it.”
Grubb arrived in Loudon during the last Sprint Cup practice Saturday, in which Hamlin posted the top speed. His wife, Yolanda, gave birth to a daughter, their second child, on Monday.
Team engineer Mike Wheeler guided Hamlin’s car through qualifying and practice, and Grubb took over on race day.
Any flip-flopping, Hamlin said, had no bearing the pit-road error.
“The reason is because we discussed our strategies, things we were going to do before the race even started, what we were going to do as far as tire strategy,” Hamlin said. “Really what we missed out on him was the adjustments on the car during practices. That’s it. We never really talk about any race strategies until race day . . . It was just a bad circumstance.”
Hamlin regularly tracked down cars right off the restart, but found those final five seconds separating him and Kahne too much. Hamlin called the deficit a “death sentence.”
Chasing down the leader with two laps remaining and less than a second out of first, Hamlin went high on turns 3 and 4, a bold but necessary maneuver.
“All I wanted to do was just get close enough where I could hit him to make it somewhat interesting,” Hamlin said. “Just a dive-bomb move to make up some kind of ground to see if I could make something happen.”
But Hamlin still ranks fifth in Sprint Cup points this season with two wins heading into a weeklong break before the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis July 29. Drivers return to Loudon Sept. 23 for the Sylvania 300.
“The biggest part of frustration means we’re going into an off weekend, now we have to think about it for two weeks,” Grubb said. “The big thing is, we came here, No. 1 on our list was getting a setup for when we come back here for race No. 2, because he seems to struggle here in the past a little bit. He was fast all weekend, so we look forward to coming back.
“Still a great day, pulling back through and finishing second. We had a shot to win it. If we had a few more laps, I think we would have had a good shot at it.”
Alex Prewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt.