Hamlin Steals The Show At Texas Motor Speedway
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Fort Worth, Texas – Denny Hamlin emerged from the circus-like atmosphere at Texas Motor Speedway Sunday as NASCAR’s new Sprint Cup Series point leader, on a day when the sight of a monkey selling programs ultimately proved mundane.
Hamlin held off Matt Kenseth to win the AAA Texas 500 in a three-lap shootout that relegated four-time and reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson to second in the standings after Race No. 8 of the 10-event Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
Johnson, who began the day 14 points ahead of Hamlin, exited Texas 33 points behind his rival after a ninth-place finish featuring the controversial on-the-fly swap of his pit crew with that of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
Meanwhile, remaining Chase contender Kevin Harvick managed a sixth-place finish to hold onto third in the championship, 59 points behind Hamlin. Harvick began the race 38 points behind Johnson in a three-for-all that will continue next Sunday at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway.
“You know, for me I’m going to race Phoenix as if I’m 33 behind, to be honest with you,” said Hamlin, who completed only the second two-race Cup sweep on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval. “There’s no comfortable margin going into Homestead because anything can happen. I need to just 100 percent stay focused, is all I can do.”
The Chase will conclude on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 21. But either of the final two events will be hard-pressed to match the record 33 lead-changes among 13 drivers witnessed here before a crowd estimated at 156,000. The former record for lead changes was 29 set in 2000.
“Like I say, I’m not going to be conservative having the lead,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota Camry. “I’m going to want to stretch that out before we get to Homestead. So that’s pretty much my mindset.”
Hamlin took the lead from Mark Martin for the final time on Lap 306 on a restart following
the day’s eighth caution period. But a restart on Lap 332, after the race’s ninth and final caution, proved pivotal as Hamlin paired-off against Matt Kenseth.
“It was exciting,” said Hamlin, who had qualified a disappointing 30th on Friday. “I figured I had been pretty good on the top on restarts once we got our car tightened-up enough that I was pretty confident I would be OK. But restarts have been my Achilles Heel all Chase long, all year long. I just can’t seem to get it together.
“So I was able to side-draft the No. 17 (of Kenseth) enough on the front straightaway to keep beside him to where he couldn’t clear me off (Turn 2) and that was going to be very important. But when he cleared me in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2, he did it by gassing up really aggressive and early, and I knew it was gong to be a hard time for him to exit the corner that way. He obviously ran out of racetrack and it opened up the door for us to cross over.
“For me, it was great to win a race that way. I love racing for a win like that. Any driver will tell you if there’s one guy you’re going to trust underneath you, it’s going to be Matt. For me, it was very gratifying to win a race that way.”
Kenseth said he knew what Hamlin was doing and was OK with it. “In lap 100 you wouldn’t do that to somebody because they’d be mad, but over the last 10 laps that’s totally fair,” said Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford Fusion. “I’d probably be trying to do the same thing as much as I could to get the inside guy loose and get him uncomfortable.
“Surprisingly, my car was pretty stable and it lasted for a lap, and I just lifted real early because we were side-by-side and I wanted to actually keep him inside of me. I thought if we left Turn 2 at least nose-to-nose and I could get into (Turn) 3 and still have him outside of me that we’d have a shot at the finish line.
“So, I lifted real early when he lifted and then I got back to the gas real early and he must have slipped up a bit. I was a little surprised we cleared him and I just pulled up in front of him and started getting off the corner. I probably shouldn’t have been holding the wheel as much as I did but wanted to get a nice run off the corner. As soon as he got away from my side, for whatever reason and got behind me, my car just took off. It just felt like it raised the car half-an-inch and went straight and I had to get out of the gas. I had to keep from hitting the wall.”
Kenseth finished 0.488-seconds behind Hamlin, who posted his 16th Cup victory in 185 career series starts. None have come at a more critical juncture.
“For me, my goal was to be one of the most mentally tough guys behind the wheel,” said Hamlin, winner of eight races this season. “And that means when things don’t go your way you figure out a way to make it a positive or you figure out how can it fuel the fire in a good way. And for me not having the best car at the beginning, I didn’t let it…I think before I would have probably panicked and we probably would have made really big adjustments.
“But we kept just chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it. So for me, I think over the last year I’ve been a whole lot more mentally tough when it comes to these races, especially at the end, to figure out what it takes to win.”
Johnson, meanwhile, entered the heretofore uncharted territory of following the point leader. Most of that fell upon the shoulders of his pit crew, which was jettisoned by crew chief Chad Knaus after seven stops. Four of those lost track position, so when Gordon’s car was disabled, Knaus sent his guys into witness protection in favor of Sir Jeff’s team.
Gordon’s crew thereupon took Johnson through three clean stops, including a right-side-only tire change on Lap 301.
“It’s something new, for sure,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala. “It’s nothing we’ve done in the past. But I just watched the World Series and when a pitcher is not doing his job, they make changes and get someone in who can. We know our guys are capable of doing it. We know it’s possible. We just had some things going on today that we couldn’t rebound from it and it really put us in a bad position on the racetrack. And it kind of led to the bad result today.
“I can promise you this – I am trying as hard as I can. I know my team is and we are doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be, but we’re going to work to get back on top.”
Gordon didn’t need the services of his pit crew after being rammed from behind in Turn 4 and knocked out of the race by Jeff Burton on Lap 192 of the scheduled 334-lapper. Gordon exited his disabled car and calmly walked beside the wall before leaping at Burton and grabbing him by the shoulders. No real punches were landed but the two “Gentlemen Jeffs” had to be separated by safety workers and NASCAR officials.
‘Thankfully, I had a long walk down there to him because I thought about the least amount that I wanted to do,” said Gordon, driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevy. “I wanted to show him how upset I was but I wanted to do a whole lot more than that. But I held back and I’m just still in disbelief. I like Jeff. He apologized and said it was his fault. He said he didn’t mean to do it and whatever. It’s over.”
Earlier, the ever-combustible Kyle Busch saluted a NASCAR official with single finger to register his displeasure at being called back into the pits after it was determined he had used excessive speed while exiting on Lap 159. Busch was trying to remain on the lead lap.
After serving his one-lap penalty, Busch flashed his middle finger at the official…who saw it and promptly ordered Busch back in to serve a two-lap penalty for verbal abuse. Recall that Busch had dropped a series of expletives after finishing second in Saturday’s Nationwide Series event to Carl Edwards, whom he charged had jumped the final restart.
“We tried to get tires on it and beat the pace car out and I wasn’t trying to speed,” said Busch, who finished 32nd and two laps down in the No.18 M&Ms Toyota Camry. “I was just two lights over, or something like that, I guess, and I sped on pit road. Then they penalized me for it. I’m sorry I lost my cool to everybody on this team, to everybody at NASCAR and all of my guys that support me. It’s just so frustrating the way that you have such a fast race car and then you get spun out and you don’t expect to lose your cool, I guess.”
At the circus that was TMS Sunday afternoon, however, Busch was merely a sideshow.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments