Late caution helps Hamlin to victory
Denny Hamlin finally had fortune go his way, as he benefited from a late caution to take the NASCAR Sprint Cup victory at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday.
Hamlin endured a spirited challenge from Matt Kenseth on the final couple of laps to win the Heluva Good! 400. Hamlin led eight laps to take his first win of the year, and 17th of his career.
Although it had been only 16 races since his last win, Hamlin said that felt like a long drought.
"For me, if I go about eight weeks without winning, I'm wondering what the heck is going on," he said.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver took his first lead on a final pit stop, holding it on the restart with five laps to go. Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Paul Menard and Kyle Busch were quickly in the mix, as well.
The group was battling after Hendrick Motorsports' Dale Earnhardt Jr. hit the wall, bringing out the caution with less than 10 laps remaining — and changing the complexion of the race.
On the restart with 27 laps to go, drivers had shuffled position quickly in a tight battle for the lead. With the laps winding down, and fuel mileage possibly coming into play, a variety of strategies were at play. All, though, were trying to get to the front.
Edwards took the lead after a four-wide showdown with Hamlin chasing closely. They took over a battle that had belonged to their teammates for much of the race. Others began fuel conservation at various points in that late run, with even Hamlin and Edwards keeping an eye on their own mileage.
Then came the caution — and the leaders pitted. And Hamlin took the lead.
His win moved him from 12th to ninth in the points standings.
"I feel like over the last six to seven weeks, we've been as good as anyone," Hamlin said. "Feels good to get a win after sneaking up on everyone. When we go to these racetracks that we won at before, everyone expects us to win. We expect ourselves to win. We just had little bugs that kept us from doing that. This one we just snuck in there."
Kenseth admitted that he had been pleased to see the caution, as well.
"I'm happy that there was a caution, and we didn't run out of gas and we got to race for the end," he said. "That was no fun running half throttle. It was nice to be able to go race, but, unfortunately, I didn't do a great job on the restart. I spun my tires, Denny saw me hanging back a little bit and took off. Once he's clear, it's really hard to pass, especially on a short run like that. The track gets black; it's all slimy with the new tires.
"My car wasn't good on a short run. Took us about 10 laps. Didn't have enough to get around him once he cleared me there."
Until the restart with 27 to go, the race had seen a different pack battling for the lead.
Up to that point, Busch was the only driver who could break the Ford hold at the track. He finished third, though, after losing ground briefly on the late restarts.
"I was just a little bit ahead of Matt," he said of the restart where he slipped further back. "When I saw Matt start taking off, I took off. I guess I took off pretty good. I didn't spin my tires at all. I was too far ahead of him. I didn't know how that was going to look in NASCAR's eyes. I tried to back up a little bit, not beat him too bad from the start/finish line.
"Once I slowed my momentum down, the herd was coming. I had to let them go by me, regather, get my momentum built back up in turns one and two, go back after it. Once I got back like that, my car was perfect out front. In traffic there, I was just a little bit too tight in the center, a little bit too loose off. It was hard to get the throttle down and accelerate back up to those guys."
Greg Biffle and Kenseth battled for the top spot for much of the race, with Busch crashing the party in a latter segment. The trio combined to lead 144 laps in the outing.
Teams pushed the fuel window, with Kasey Kahne running out prior to his final pit stop with 45 to go, then having difficulty getting restarted in his stall. He finally got it running and raced back onto the track, ending his chance at a solid day.
The caution came out on Lap 158 as Juan Pablo Montoya also ran out of gas in the turn and was slammed into by Andy Lally, spinning near the pit-road entrance. That came in the middle of green-flag pit stops, which caused Biffle to be down a lap but he earned the free pass on the caution. Kenseth had also already pitted, but was on the lead lap. He came in on lap 161 and topped off with fuel.
Kenseth had earlier fuel issues as well, but his came when his team didn’t get enough into the car on the first stop. The team then had a lug nut fall off, which slowed a subsequent stop. Yet Kenseth and company kept battling among the leaders.
Penske Racing’s Kurt Busch started from the pole position but couldn’t maintain the top spot throughout the race. He continually worked with his team on changes, but late in the race was clearly displeased with his car. He would settle for 11th.
A week after seriously cutting into Edwards’ points lead, Jimmie Johnson’s effort was hampered early when he spun off Turn 2. Although he avoided damage, he did find himself a lap down in the early going. He earned the free pass on the next caution but a lengthy stop to work on the car left him two laps down in the early segment of the race. He went on to finish 27th.
Recent race winner Brad Keselowski endured a rough race. First he tagged the wall after cutting a tire, bringing out the caution on Lap 83. Then on his pit stop on Lap 126, he slid through his stall and had to be pushed back into position.