Hamlin wins in Martinsville, closes on Johnson
Just when Jimmie Johnson thought he was going to run away with the points lead and a solid bid on a fifth-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup series title, hometown favorite Denny Hamlin was there to rain on his parade.
Hamlin passed Kevin Harvick with 29 laps to go to post his third consecutive Martinsville Speedway win in Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500, cutting Johnson’s points lead in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings to just six points.
Mark Martin rallied from a mid-race crash to finish second. Harvick held on for third and is now 62 points behind Johnson. Kyle Busch came home fourth to hold onto fourth in the standings, 172 points back of Johnson, who rounded out the top five.
Hamlin led just two times for 40 laps, but showed his muscle down the stretch as he stalked Harvick’s teammate Jeff Burton for nearly 50 laps before finally reeling in Harvick on lap 471 and going on to win his seventh race of the season and the 15th of his career.
“I don’t think I’ve ever closed that well – ever,” said Hamlin. “We kept working. We did not have a race-winning car all day until the very end. Mike (Ford, crew chief) and those guys just adjusted and adjusted. The pit crew got me from sixth to third on that last restart and that was the key – bottom line that was the key.”
“We kept fighting, kept digging, kept making up spots throughout the day and just had the best car at the end. I just can’t say enough for everyone who put all the work in to get this done. This is a come-from-behind victory.”
Taking the green flag from the pole, Hamlin led just the opening 10 laps before fading back to mid-pack with an ill-handling racecar, but managed to get the right adjustments from his pit crew to get the no. 11 FedEx Toyota back into the top five.
Coming off pit road in third behind Burton and Harvick following the final round of pit stops, Hamlin patiently bided his time while the Richard Childress Racing duo tried to distance themselves from the field.
Hamlin’s methodical approach worked as Burton and Harvick slowly began falling back to Hamlin, who would go to take the checkered flag in victory he had to have to keep his title hopes alive.
“Who said it was over? Told you it wasn't over,” said Hamlin of the points battle. “I was just waiting and hoping that the 31 (Jeff Burton) and 29 (Kevin Harvick) would use their stuff up racing each other. I was just sitting there and sitting there trying to be patient with those rear tires and saved it for the end.”
Harvick had one of the most dominant cars in the field, leading 97 laps despite a dismal qualifying effort that landed him 36th on the grid, moving up through traffic to grab the lead on 172 and trading the top spot with Burton for much of the next 55 laps.
Although it was not a victory for Harvick, the third-place showing keeps in the hunt for his first series title.
“Those guys on pit road were just awesome today and really kept us up and in front and in the race. And that's what we've got to do,” said Harvick. “We kept the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) behind us and the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) in sight and what everybody said was a two-horse race and we were right there in the middle of it. So, it's a lot of fun. Right now we've got four more weeks.”
Johnson started off the day looking to extend his points lead before heading into next week’s meat-grinder of a race at Talladega.
Starting off 19th, Johnson never led a lap but did not stray far from the top 10 despite some damage to his car from a rub from Marcos Ambrose.
Over the final quarter of the race, Johnson began clawing his way back into the top five and hung on for his 15th top-five finish of the season and retain a slim lead in the points standings.
“It was a solid performance; something we can't be disappointed in. I wish we were a little better but there is a lot of racing left,” said Johnson. “Happy to still be leading. Wish the margin had gone the other way. Denny won the race, closed it up. We'll buckle down, go to work the next four. We're rolling into Talladega. We all know what can happen there.”
While Johnson may have managed to salvage a decent finish, Jeff Gordon saw his hopes for a fifth title all but vanish after backing into the wall off the bumper of Kurt Busch.
156 points of first place at the start of the race, Gordon led 56 laps at the midway point of the race and was looking at a solid top-five finish before pushing Busch aside for 12th place on lap 386.
Busch came right back and nailed the no. 24 Chevrolet in the left rear and sent Gordon backwards into the inside wall in a retaliatory strike that destroyed Gordon’s rear clip and his championship run along with it, now 203 points behind Johnson.
Joey Logano finished sixth, followed by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who picked up just his second top-10 finish in the last 14 races.
Carl Edwards finished eighth to move to sixth in the points standings. Burton was ninth followed by Brad Keselowski.
Tony Stewart finished 24th to drop to seventh in the points standings. Jeff Burton dropped two spots to eighth, followed by Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Clint Bowyer.
* Denotes Rookie
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