MARTINSVILLE, Va._ After scoring his seventh victory of the season and first of the Chase, Denny Hamlin walked into the Martinsville Speedway media center pointing at reporters, asking, “Who said it was over? Told you it wasn’t over.”
Coming into the weekend 41 points behind Jimmie Johnson in the Chase, Hamlin knew this weekend’s race in Martinsville was his best chance to close the gap before heading to the ‘wild card’ race at Talladega Superspeedway. Sitting on the pole, Hamlin’s day got off to a rough start but at the end of Sunday’s 500-lap race Hamlin was the one celebrating with his fourth grandfather clock.
“I like being behind and chasing a guy,” Hamlin said. “I do not like playing defense at all. So, I mean, to come here and play offense all day, going through adversity to get this win, it’s a huge boost going forward. Right now I feel like we’re in a great position going to Talladega where, who knows, we could both finish 41, 42, or opposite spectrums. Nobody knows once we go next week. I know we’ve been extremely strong at Talladega for the last two to three years. So I’m pretty confident.”
Although he started out front, Hamlin was forced to chase the field in the early stages of the race. Losing the lead to Marcos Ambrose on Lap 10, the No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota quickly fell through the field. Surprising many, Hamlin was outside of the top-15 when the first caution of the day came on Lap 49.
Pitting with the rest of the leaders, Hamlin’s day turned around after restarting the race on Lap 53. While Hamlin worked his way back through the field, crew chief Mike Ford discovered the cause of their early struggles.
“I knew we couldn’t be that far off,” said Ford. “So I figured something was wrong with the car. Instead of making wholesale changes, we went a little bit more than what we typically would change hoping we saw something with a set of tires coming off. We certainly did. We saw a lot of buildup to the left rear, probably four times more than we normally see.”
Knowing he would have to keep pace with Johnson and Kevin Harvick, who entered the day third in the Chase, Hamlin ran nose-to-tail with the No. 48 and No. 29 throughout much of the afternoon.
“I think it was a ‘must finish in front of’ race,” Hamlin said. “Like I say, I couldn’t lose points to (Johnson), not at this racetrack. We run too good here the last few years to lose points to him at this racetrack. Literally I just kept him and the 29 in my sights all day long.
“Someone had a chain connected to our cars all day, we were all racing right around each other,” he added. “Most of the time I was the third wheel in that chain. So I just made sure I kept those guys close, kept ‘em close, kept ‘em close, until with a hundred to go we were going to have to get aggressive, whether it be on restarts or whatnot.”
While Hamlin kept tabs on Harvick and Johnson, Jeff Burton turned up the heat and drove to the front. With one of the strongest cars all day, Burton led a race-high 134 laps, but faded late in the going and finished ninth.
Even fan-favorite, but ill-fated Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his 15 minutes of fame Sunday, leading three times for a total of 90 laps – more than the previous 30 races of the year. As the race went on, Earnhardt’s car fell off as others came on strong. When Hamlin took the checkered flag, Earnhardt Jr. was seventh, only his third top-10 since the July race in Daytona.
When Earnhardt Jr. lost the lead, the race was put in the hands of the trio of Harvick, Burton and Hamlin. Working through traffic in the final 50 laps, Hamlin’s car came on strong while Burton’s began to fade. Hamlin took second from Burton on Lap 453 as he closed on the back bumper of Harvick in traffic.
Making the move under Harvick on Lap 467, the two ran side-by-side for four laps before Hamlin was able to finally clear the No. 29 on Lap 471, the 24th and final lead change of the day.
“(Harvick) had probably one of the best cars, except for maybe the 31,” Hamlin admitted. “They kept flip flopping back and forth all day with who had the best car between those two.
“I just chased those guys all day long until the end when we just got that adjustment just a little bit better than what those guys did,” he added.
With Johnson finishing fifth and failing to lead a lap, Hamlin now moves within six points of the Chase lead.
“Had we lost points to him here, probably would have been a big blow as far as my confidence going forward,” Hamlin said. “Because obviously this is probably my best racetrack. It’s his best racetrack. I feel like I have been better than him in the last couple years.”
Johnson’s fifth place finish was very hard fought at the end of the day. With Kyle Busch on his back bumper for the closing laps, Johnson refused to give in to the repeated bumps from the No. 18 Toyota. Frustrated with how Johnson was racing him, Busch continued to get into the back bumper of the No. 48 Chevrolet until he was finally able to move past for fourth on Lap 474.
“I was doing all that I could to hang on to the position I was in and the points that came along with that,” Johnson said of the battle. “Worked me over from time to time. Never really got inside of me. Then the contact started. That’s fine. I get it. Especially in the center of the corner off the turn, that’s not a problem. Then I got hit a couple times going into the turn. That’s when I thought it was uncool. Showed him the one finger salute a few times. It was more me letting him know I was pissed. He mellowed out.”
While Busch and Johnson battled for fourth, Burton fell backwards and Hamlin and Harvick fought for the lead, Mark Martin charged through the field with a torn up race car. Involved in a wreck on Lap 227, Martin’s car came to life late in the race as the track rubbered up. As others fell off, Martin charged to the front, finishing the day in the second spot.
“With a hundred to go, we were 20th or something like that, 111 to go,” Martin said. “We drove to second. Why wouldn’t that be fun? I’m used to people passing me. I was passing good cars the way they usually do me here. I never could figure out how they did that. Now I know. When the car was working like mine was working today, that was really fun. We had a spectacular racecar at the end.”
Entering the day with a slight chance at remaining a Chase contender, Jeff Gordon had a strong car in the early stages of the race. Sticking with their strategy, Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte adjusted on the car to make it the strongest in the final stages of the race.
That all changed when a slow stop mired the No. 24 in the middle of the pack. Struggling to get back to the front, Gordon got frustrated with Kurt Busch and moved him out of the way for position in Turn 3. Not happy with the move, Busch got into the left rear of Gordon’s car, sending him sliding into the inside wall. The incident ruined Gordon’s day and essentially crushed any hopes at rejoining the fight for the championship as he fell to fifth in the standings, 203 points out of the lead.
Next weekend the series heads to the ‘wild card’ race of the Chase at Talladega Superspeedway. Known for surprise winners and devastating wrecks, Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick are looking to make it through next Sunday’s race in one piece and race for the title amongst themselves.
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