LOUDON, N.H. -- A two-tire gamble for Denny Hamlin paid off with his first NASCAR Nextel Cup victory of the season Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Hamlin, last year's top rookie, is second in the season points, but he's been frustrated this season, leading laps and contending without being able to take a checkered flag in the first 16 races.
It appeared he would fall short again this time, with Martin Truex Jr., series points leader Jeff Gordon and Truex's teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., all running ahead of Hamlin late in the race.
But the leaders made their final scheduled pit stops on lap 255 during a caution period and Hamlin was the only one of the quartet to take two fresh tires instead of four. He vaulted from fourth to first and stayed out front to the end of the Lenox Industrial Tools 300.
"It's amazing to finally get a win," Hamlin said after winning for the third time in his budding Cup career and the first time since last July at Pocono.
"We were back in sixth and seventh most of the day and the only shot we had was to get track position," said Hamlin, who now has seven top fives and 11 top 10s this season. "You know, two tires worked for us earlier (in the race) and we kind of made a note that anything inside of 120 laps to go we were going to do two."
Hamlin has said he and his team were working hard to win races because the 12 drivers who qualify for this year's 10-race Chase for the championship will be seeded, with each driver getting 10 extra points for each win during the 26-race regular season.
That was on Hamlin's mind before his final stop on Sunday.
"I feel like we're comfortable inside the Chase here and we rolled the dice a little bit," he said. "We knew we could take some aggressive cuts and try to get some extra points for when the Chase does start."
While Hamlin worked hard to stay out front, Gordon was working over Truex, trying hard to get by. The two Chevrolets spent a lot of time side-by-side and nose-to-tail until Gordon finally squeezed past seven laps from the end of the 300-lap race on the 1.058-mile oval.
Gordon, racing with an interim crew chief after NASCAR suspended both his and teammate Jimmie Johnson's crew chiefs for six weeks after their teams were caught the previous week at Sonoma with illegally modified front fenders, nearly chased down Hamlin.
The four-time series champion got right up on the rear bumper of the leader's Joe Gibbs Racing Chevy on the final turn. Hamlin held on to win by just 0.068-seconds -- less than a car-length -- in the eighth race and New Hampshire debut for NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow.
"You can't overdrive this car," Gordon said of the bigger, bulkier COT. "The harder I tried to drive, the slower I went.
"I fought so hard with Martin there. It was a great battle and I had a lot of fun racing with him. But we used up a lot of our stuff, so it took me a couple of laps once I got in front of him to get readjusted and get back in my rhythm."
Asked if he thought he could still catch Hamlin, Gordon said, "We were running Denny down and he was doing a great job at the end. Those last two laps he started watching his mirror and I thought we had a shot at him."
Truex got his first Cup victory last month at Dover.
"Another almost, could of been day," he said. "Six months ago I'd have been begging for a third, but ... I thought we had the car there toward the end."
Truex wound up third, followed by Earnhardt, Johnson and Jeff Green, the only other leader who gambled on changing two tires on the final stop. Green jumped from 13th to fourth and stayed with the leaders to the end.
• Results from the race • 5C