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Hamlin takes Chase lead in wild race
FORT WORTH, Texas
Denny Hamlin two-stepped at Texas Motor Speedway when it counted the most.
Hamlin swept both Texas Sprint Cup races in 2010, but Sunday night's victory vaulted him to the top of the point standings, surpassing Jimmie Johnson by 33 points.
Hamlin did not have the dominant car during the daylight, but once the sun went down the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota came alive thanks to masterful adjustments in the pits.
Hamlin passed Mark Martin for the lead on Lap 306, stayed on the track during the final caution and held off an electric Matt Kenseth by less than half a second at the line.
"That's the way to win it," Hamlin howled over the radio.
Crew chief Mike Ford replied, "They're going to have to beat us."
That's a good thing. No driver has lost the points lead in the final two races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup since its inception in 2004. And because his main title rivals — Johnson and Kevin Harvick — beat themselves on Sunday, Hamlin is in the enviable position of trying to extend that streak this season.
Ford's decision to select the pit in front of the No. 48 team placed tremendous pressure on Johnson's pit crew. The 48 crew folded early, which resulted in crew chief Chad Knaus electing to swap squads with the No. 24 team after Jeff Gordon's day ended early. Although Johnson's pit stops improved in the closing laps, he still finished ninth.
While Harvick had a strong car and solid pit stops throughout the day, he had issues with debris accumulating on his grill, which elevated the car's temperature. As the track cooled, Harvick's car became extremely loose. On Lap 316, he bounced off the wall coming off of Turn 4 and radioed to his crew, "I killed it, just killed it guys." After pitting during the final caution, Harvick rebounded from ninth place to sixth in the final three laps. He remains in the hunt, 59 points out of first and third in the standings, but lost crucial points to Hamlin.
"I wasn't going to expect them to make a mistake so I needed to go out there and outperform them straight up," Hamlin said. "I wasn't going to be able to just ride around in fifth or 10th for the next two weeks and just hope they make a mistake because I'm not going to count on that happening. So that was more what I was thinking about."
Certainly, Hamlin has to be favored entering the final two events. Despite finishing 30th at Phoenix in April following knee surgery, Hamlin's four prior starts on the one-mile track resulted in finishes of sixth or better. Half of Hamlin's 10 Phoenix appearances resulted in top-fives. Plus, Hamlin is the defending winner of the season finale at Homestead.
Still, Hamlin remains grounded. He admits he will race as if he's 33 points behind and not the leader. He realistically understands the experience and depth the No. 48 team has after winning four consecutive championships. Hamlin's not taking that for granted.
"We haven't seen them in this position before, but I'm sure they'll respond accordingly, and it's just going to force us to raise our game," Hamlin said. "And that's what we're going to do."
“Boys have at it” was in full force Sunday as Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon cowboy-upped to extremes.
Burton wrecked Gordon on Lap 191, and what ensued next more closely resembled a bar-room brawl as the diminutive four-time champ came out of his car swinging.
Before the contact — in and out of the cars — Gordon believed Burton raced him too aggressively considering the drivers were running 18th and 19th, respectively. He pulled alongside the No. 31 to question Burton’s tactics.
"We went down into (Turn) 3. He went wide going into (Turn) 3. I got to the inside of him and there were four car widths between us and he drove from the wall all the way down to me; almost in the second groove up,” Gordon said. “I didn't understand why and so the caution came out and we went down into (Turn) 1 and I just drove up next to him.
“I didn't even touch him. And I don't know, I guess he was just really frustrated with the way his car was handling or something and he just drove into my right rear and put me in the wall under caution.”
Burton blamed Mother Nature. With the sun in his eyes coming off of Turn 4, he said in hindsight he should have given Gordon the position — but chose not to.
"Caution came out and he pulled up next to me to express his displeasure and he was right,” Burton said. “We don't need to be racing side-by-side right there right now. I went to pull back up to him to acknowledge him. When we did I was turning left and I don't know, we hooked somehow and around we went.
“We just got hooked up together. I think it is the stupidest thing I think I might have ever done. Like I said I was pulling up next to him to acknowledge him to say 'Look, I'm cool, I got you' and we just got together and wrecked both cars."
Burton and Gordon were scored 36th and 37th. Both drivers dropped two positions in the standings. Gordon fell to sixth, while Burton slid to the Chase cellar.
Burton wasn’t surprised that Gordon came after him. Burton knew he had it coming.
“I went to go see him because I knew he was going to be mad and I fully expected it,” Burton said. “I don't blame him. Hell, I would have been if I had been him, too. I really don't blame him. He was mad and I was right there."
Gordon has been a magnet for several dustups this season. However, given the history between he and Burton, he was surprised that his long-time competitor dumped him.
“Of all the people out there, I never thought that would happen to Jeff Burton and me,” Gordon said. “I've always has a tremendous amount of respect for him. But I certainly lost a lot of respect today."
Winning crew chief Mike Ford sheltered his driver Denny Hamlin from the distraction.
For Hamlin, that was a good thing.
“I saw the 24 tore out of hell, and I thought, what in the world happened,” Hamlin said. “Thanks for not letting me in on that. So yeah, I don't know. I don't know. Good thing I didn't know. That definitely would have sidetracked me.”
Second-place finisher Matt Kenseth, who posted his best finish since Atlanta in March, took great pleasure in the altercation. Kenseth has had his share of run-ins with Gordon in the past, although when the two champions battled on pit road at Bristol in 2006, Gordon had protection.
“I heard there was a fight today,” Kenseth said with a smirk. “Did everybody take their helmets off?”
In regards to the scuffle, NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said, “We’ll discuss that some more.”
When Gordon was asked if he thought there would be a penalty for his actions he replied, “No more penalty than what he deserves for what he did."
Gordon was far from amused after watching his car retreat on the wrecker and being forced to ride in the ambulance with Burton. Richard Childress Racing crew chief Gil Martin thought the ambulance was the best place for both drivers.
“At least they'll have medical attention,” Martin said.
One finger salute
Kyle Busch learned the hard way that telling a NASCAR official he’s No. 1 might not be in his best interest. Especially when the action is captured on national television.
Aric Almirola dumped Busch in Turn 1 on Lap 159 while the No. 18 was running in the top 10. After Busch’s crew fixed the damage, he barreled down pit road in an effort to stay on the lead lap — only to be nailed with a speeding penalty exiting the pits and held one lap.
That’s when his in car camera nailed him.
On Lap 160, Busch was placed in the penalty box for two laps after “verbal abuse to a NASCAR official”. In the notes column on the infraction sheet, the words “Obscene Gesture” followed.
“It was a tough day,” Busch said. “We had a fast race car. The guys did an awesome job but unfortunately I got spun out there trying to get to the bottom lane. I had guys in front of me doing it before, but I got wrecked.
“Then, on the ensuing pit stop there we tried to get tires on it and beat the pace car out and I wasn’t trying to speed. 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.”
Busch may not have heard the end of it either.
A NASCAR official told FOXSports.com that “While we did penalize the 18 car for making an inappropriate gesture to a NASCAR official by holding him two laps, this is something we will discuss further early in the week and determine what other actions we will take. What he did was inappropriate and disrespectful.”
Greg Biffle led 181 of 334 laps in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, but his transmission didn’t hold up until the end of the race.
As the caution fell for debris on Lap 301, Biffle radioed to the team the “transmission has vibrated itself to death. I have no first or second (gear).”
Although Biffle held on to finish fifth, it wasn’t the result he expected.
“We know we have had this problem and have neglected to fix it,” Biffle said. “We have had numerous opportunities. We had bad drive train vibration problems and today it bit us. It shook the guts out of the transmission today and they still don’t know what it is. They think they know what it is, but I am not sure if they really know.”
Ford’s latest prospect Trevor Bayne performed to a tee behind the No. 21 Wood Brothers' machine on Sunday, posting 17th-place finish in his first Sprint Cup start.
“That was awesome man,” said Bayne, who started 28th. “These things are so much fun. I wish I could do it every weekend. It was a blast to drive and to be that fast for a first run is incredible.
(Crew chief) Donnie Wingo, everybody at Wood Brothers Racing and Roush Fenway and Ford I want to thank for giving me this opportunity. I don’t really know what to say. That was as good or better than we expected so I am really pumped about it.”
Although no one will commit to Bayne’s next appearance, expect to see the rookie behind the wheel of a Ford in the Daytona 500.