Hamlin holds off Gordon in Martinsville
Virginia native Denny Hamlin finally broke into the win column in his home state, passing fellow Virginia native Jeff Burton with 74 laps to go to and holding off Jeff Gordon to win Sunday’s Goody’s Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
After recording two top-three finishes in five starts at the half-mile oval, Hamlin overcame the bad luck that has plagued him all season to break Hendrick Motorsports long string of victories at Martinsville, but to do it, Hamlin had to hold off Hendrick’s Martinsville ace Jeff Gordon – a seven-time Martinsville winner – as Gordon hunted him down over the final laps.
With the lapped car of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch between them, Hamlin held off Gordon through the last seven laps for his first Sprint Cup victory of the year and the fourth of his career.
Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart followed Hamlin and Gordon to the finish.
“First Virginia win for me,” said Hamlin. “Finally. The curse is over, I think. I hope. We've had such bad luck over these first few weeks.
“It finally feels good to come here and get a win. This is a sign of things to come, I believe.”
After posting a victory in the Gatorade Duel race prior to the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin has had a miserable run of luck, starting with a 41st-place showing at California and a fuel-pickup problem which denied him a win two weeks ago at Bristol.
Now, it seems that coming home has been the lucky charm he needed.
“It's just been so close so many times to finally breakthrough here definitely means a lot,” said Hamlin. “Kind of feels like maybe the monkey is off of our back.”
At a track that has been dominated by Hendrick Motorsports, winning eight of the last 10 races at Martinsville, Sunday’s race was no exception, as Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. combine to lead 371 of the 500 laps.
In the end though, it was savvy pit strategy that gave Hamlin’s team the victory.
Following the 17th yellow flag on lap 386. Gordon gave up the lead to make his final pit stop along with most of the leaders – all except Burton, who elected to stay out to pick up track position and ultimately the lead.
Hamlin tried a different ploy – taking on only fuel to beat Gordon off pit road and restart the race fifth behind Burton, Brian Vickers, Carl Edwards and Casey Mears with 107 laps to go.
Hamlin carefully picked his way through the top five, moving up behind Burton with 74 laps to before ducking inside to take the lead.
Gordon, who restarted in the fifth position after the final caution on lap 403, also began making his way toward the front, passing Burton for second with seven laps to go, but couldn’t clear lapped traffic in time to make a run at Hamlin for the victory.
“It came down to pit strategy and Denny (Hamlin) and those guys definitely did the right strategy taking two,” said Gordon, who was unaware that Hamlin only took fuel on his last stop. “I don't know, my car just would never go on that last set, last two sets. It was a handful, Junior got by me and I was just trying to hold on and all of a sudden it started coming to me a little bit.
“Luckily there was a real long run there and I was able to get by (Edwards) and (Burton) and make a great effort out of it.”
Burton, though, was angered by the erratic driving of rookie Michael McDowell, making his Sprint Cup debut driving for Michael Waltrip.
McDowell, running three laps down in the closing laps, seemed to hold up Burton as he tried to climb back up to challenge Hamlin.
“I'm proud of the effort, good pit stops,” said Burton. “ I thought we had something, we started coming back on Hamlin and then that kid in the 00 (McDowell), he's going to learn some manners or I'm going to teach them to him or he can choose it however he wants it but it will be one way or the other.”
Despite finishing third, Burton managed to leave Martinsville as the series points leader after Kyle Busch - who scored Toyota’s first ever Sprint Cup victory two weeks ago at Bristol - ran into transmission problems, knocking him to a 38th-place finish.
Jamie McMurray enjoyed one of his best runs of the season. After dropping out of the top 35 in points, McMurray was forced to qualify on speed and did just that, earning him a fifth-place starting spot that McMurray parlayed until an eighth-place finish and moving him back into the top 35 in points.
McMurray’s good fortune came at the expense of David Reutimann, who dropped out of the top 35 after failing to finish in his first start in place of Dale Jarrett in the no. 44 UPS Toyota.
Sam Hornish, Jr. also dropped out of the top 35, joining Dario Franchitti, Kyle Petty and Dave Blaney among those who will have to race their way into next weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
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