Splitter to Spoiler: Hamlin triumphant as JGR proves its mettle in Loudon

Joe Gibbs Racing places three cars in top six, Larson powers through the field (again) and drivers feeling pressure on the bubble

Brian Fluharty—USA Today Sports
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin (11) holds up a lobster after winning the Overton's 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

We all knew it would happen eventually, but it took a lot longer than NASCAR fans might have imagined. Joe Gibbs Racing finally reached Victory Lane in the 19th race of the season, with Denny Hamlin locked in as the first driver from the team into the playoffs after all four drivers made it the last two years.But Sunday in New Hampshire was so much more than JGR getting its first victory. Gibbs and Hamlin had been knocking on the door for weeks, but to finally breakthrough and have three cars in the top six made a statement about where Gibbs and Toyota are at this point.”We get in the playoffs, we get some playoff bonus points and we’re ready to go now, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Hamlin said. “I feel like we need a little bit more speed out of our cars to be competitive week in, week out, but honestly this is a great place to start.”If all of the races were held in Kentucky and Loudon, there would be little work to do for Toyota Racing Development.In the last two weeks, Toyota drivers have led 98 percent of the laps at the two tracks. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was simply on a different pit cycle when he led 10 circuits and Kyle Larson passed the green flag once in the lead before relinquishing it.While Truex has been making a statement for Toyota all season, but it’s finally time for Gibbs to carry the banner again. NASCAR heads to Indianapolis this week, where Busch is the two-time defending champion in the Brickyard 400. Busch also has two wins at Watkins Glen, a track where Kenseth has averaged a seventh-place finish in the last two years. Then there’s Darlington, where Hamlin has the best average finish (6.27) of any active driver at the track.It might not have been a perfect performance for Gibbs in New Hampshire, but it got the team back in the win column. And with so much change taking place already this year, Hamlin isn’t ready to take his foot off the pedal.”We’ve still got to get a little faster,” Hamlin said in Victory Lane. “This doesn’t relieve any pressure. We still have to get better.”Larson fights to front to finish as bridesmaid (again)For a second straight week, Larson was forced to start from the rear due to issues prior to the race. For the second straight week, Larson led the No. 42 team to a second-place finish even with those cards being dealt.Prior to making the start at New Hampshire, Larson won what should have been his seventh pole of the season on Friday night. However, after the qualifying effort it was revealed that Larson’s car didn’t pass inspection, dropping him to 39th on the starting grid.In true Larson form, he had the Target Chevy up to third by the end of Stage 1, just 75 laps into the race. Though it’s obviously not where he wants to start, Larson’s team is still showing some of the best speed in the Monster Energy Cup Series garage.”It’s a little frustrating what we have had to go through the last couple of weeks, but it’s pretty awesome to be able to run as fast as we have and finish second the last two weeks from dead last,” Larson said. “I’m proud of our team, proud of everybody at our race shop. … It’s been a lot of fun these last couple of weeks to be as fast as we have been, so keep working hard at it and maybe we can get some more wins.”With Larson proving over the last two weeks he can fight back from nearly any issues with his team, he’s been nearly as impressive as the Toyota drivers’ domination. He may have led just one lap, but battling back into the top five while saving his equipment for a late-race run shows the pure growth of Larson this year.Larson already has two wins this season and now has nine top-two finishes on the year. Given his consistency at every style of track, it’s safe to assume Larson will be in the Championship Four at Homestead with a shot at his first title and the first championship for Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR.Pressure being felt with playoffs approachingWhen NASCAR expanded to 16 drivers in the playoffs and a win all but sealing a berth, the fan base was in an uproar about too many drivers getting in easily. But with only seven races remaining before this year’s postseason, several significant names are at risk of not making the cut.If the playoffs started today, veterans Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne would be on the outside. While Earnhardt and Kahne are outside the top 20, Logano is currently sandwiched between Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones for the final spot in the postseason.Logano and Jones find themselves on the outside due to rough outings at New Hampshire, finishing 37th and 39th respectively. Jones making the cut in his first season would be a great story, but Logano missing out would be a massive upset for the sport after he was in the title hunt over the last two years.”Right now we are in the position where we have to execute,” Logano said. “We have to finish the best as possible and we didn’t do that today. We have to go back to work and make sure our cars stay together and we have to get faster. All three of our cars were a little off today. … It was a humbling day.”Unfortunately for Logano, his lone win of the season in Richmond was considered “encumbered” because he didn’t pass post-race inspection. The victory still counts toward his overall win total, but it doesn’t clinch a playoff spot for the No. 22 team.Luckily for Logano, the upcoming schedule looks favorable. The Team Penske driver has four straight top 10s at Indy and Watkins Glen including a win at the road course in 2015, a victory at Michigan, two straight top fives at Darlington and the encumbered win in Richmond.If any team knows how to turn things around late in the season, it’s Logano’s crew.”This race team knows how to do this,” Logano said. “All of Team Penske knows how to win races and make cars fast. They do it in a bunch of different series and have been doing it over here for years. We have to stay together. Stay as a team. Keep pushing.”