LOUDON, N.H. (AP) - Experience has taught Denny Hamlin the best way to handle adversity.
The 32-year-old NASCAR Sprint Cup star lost a race on Sunday he almost certainly should have won. A mix-up over how many tires to change late in the race dropped Hamlin from the lead to 13th place for the final restart. A furious charge to the end still left him a little more than two seconds and 10 car lengths behind winner Kasey Kahne.
Hamlin came in second despite leading 150 of the 300 laps on the one-mile oval and holding leads of more than five seconds several times.
But despite his disappointment about losing when he obviously had the fastest car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, Hamlin was able to put his feelings aside and look at the positives his Joe Gibbs Racing team has racked up this year.
Heading into a rare weekend off, Hamlin is fifth in points, has two wins, is a cinch to qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Championship and likely to be one of the drivers to beat for the 2012 Cup title.
Referring to 2010, when he won a series-high eight races and finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the championship, Hamlin said, "I feel like our performance right now, even though we don't have the wins we had in 2010 at this point, I think we're more competitive now than what we were in 2010.
"At the mile-and-a-half (tracks), we don't have the speed we had in 2010, but we're dangerously close competitive-wise to where we were in 2010. Now we're just going to take that experience from then and apply it to this year."
The driver said the tire mistake, with crew chief Darian Grubb believing that Hamlin wanted him to change four tires instead of the two he had intended to change, is not going to alter anything.
"I've been through this long enough now (that) you're going to have plenty more chances in the future," Hamlin said, "especially the way we're running."
ROCKIN' STEADY: Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his strong season Sunday, finishing fourth for his eighth top-five finish and 14th top 10 in 17 races this season.
The fan favorite, who has one win in 2012, remained second in the season standings after Sunday's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, trailing Matt Kenseth by 16 points.
"We were about a tenth (of a second) off all weekend," Earnhardt said. "I was kind of surprised, too, because we tire-tested here and were super quick and we were real happy with the car. . All weekend we worked on the car real hard, and worked during the race real hard and we just couldn't run any better than we were running.
"We're just happy to run in the top five. We're strong. We've just go to get another notch, you know, and start winning some races."
He said his No. 88 Hendrick Chevrolet team is really looking forward to the postseason.
"We're pretty excited about our chances when we get to the Chase," Earnhardt said, "but we've still got some things to learn and accomplish before we get there. We're not looking too far ahead and, you know, we're trying to work on one race at a time."
There are seven races remaining before the Chase begins Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway.
CAUTION FLAG: Two of the three caution flags that waved during the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday came out because of debris on the track, but several drivers weren't happy about the second one.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson briefly lost a lap when the yellow waved because he already had made his scheduled pit stop, while most of the other leaders had not. He came back to finish seventh, but apparently had questions about why that caution happened.
"I'm going to keep my mouth shut on that one," Johnson said. "There was a lot of speed in the car. It was the Gibbs car (Hamlin's) and the Hendrick cars (winner Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt and Johnson) and, at times, I think I was the best Hendrick car, running top two, top three. But then that caution put us back in traffic. We still got through there decent."
The caution wiped out Hamlin's lead of more than five seconds over Kahne.
"I shouldn't really talk about it because it's not going to be in my favor," Hamlin said. "It's frustrating, especially when you have a good car and a lead that you built. You spend 60, 70 laps building that lead to get it taken away on some debris, whatever it may be. (NASCAR) felt like it was a hazard, whatever it was, so they threw the caution. But I want it to be something that is really a danger and a hazard to us drivers. Otherwise, just let the race play out."
BAD DAY: Kyle Busch started from the pole and led the first 66 laps of Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but the rest of the day was pretty forgettable for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
On his first pit stop, Busch's crew had trouble with the right rear tire and the driver was then hit with a drive through penalty for speeding on pit road because of a miscalculation by the team. Overall, it cost him nearly 20 seconds, dropping Busch from first place to 23rd.
Busch quickly got back into contention. He even regained the lead briefly a couple of times with the help of some good pit strategy by crew chief Dave Rogers. But trouble cropped up again when a caution flag came out shortly after Busch made a pit stop, sending him deep into the pack.
"You can't ask for anything more from a driver to come to a track that historically isn't one of your favorites and to be that fast, sit on the pole, lead that many laps and be mired in adversity all day long," Rogers said. "He had every right to get frustrated at the car and he never did. He did a great job of keeping his emotions in check and driving with the talent he has. It just didn't pay off."
PATRIOTIC FANS: Three New England Patriots made the move Sunday from the 100-yard gridiron to the one-mile oval when they attended the Sprint Cup race at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Punter Zoltan Mesko and backup offensive linemen Ryan Wendell and Nick McDonald attended the 300-mile race about 90 miles north of their home field at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Mesko is entering his third NFL season after being drafted by the Patriots in the fifth round out of Michigan in 2010. He led the AFC with a net average of 41.5 yards last season. And his 46.5 gross yards per punt in 2011 set a club record. Wendell has played 31 games in his three seasons with New England, while McDonald played four games last season with the Patriots after being with the Green Bay Packers when they won the Super Bowl the previous season.