In a race where more than one of his fellow drivers in the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup experienced major issues, Denny Hamlin had a golden opportunity to capitalize on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Competing at one of his best tracks and a place where he arrived as a four-time winner, Hamlin started fifth, led 68 laps and spent virtually the entire afternoon in the top five.
But following a pit stop for tires when the caution flag waved for an accident involving Marcos Ambrose and Kyle Larson, Hamlin lined up sixth — and on the outside — on the final restart with five laps to go.
Article continues below ...
Boxed in behind several slower cars, including three that didn’t stop under the last caution, Hamlin faded to finish eighth — not a bad result, but far less than what could have been.
"It’s hard because you’ve got guys that go laps down in the course of the race and get enough lucky dogs and then 50 laps on their tires and they want to stay out," a clearly frustrated Hamlin said. "Just bottlenecks the field up, and we all got the short end of last restart stick again. Just sucked at the end, and we can’t finish where we’re running. We’re running better than what we’re finishing."
Hamlin also voiced his displeasure with the late caution, which jumbled up the running order and led to a number of different strategies that otherwise wouldn’t have been in play.
"I’m just looking at the guys that finished in front of us, and I had them beat all day," said Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Va. "It’s just with that last restart — NASCAR fans have been so spoiled with all these late restarts, and it’s great for the fans to watch and it’s exciting, but just wish these races could play out. Tracks like Martinsville you’re not going to get long green-flag runs. Just disappointed that we finished eighth.
"It could have gone the other way as well, but we were just fighting to get back around those guys that had stayed out. Tough day, and I thought we had a race-winning car there in the middle part of the race, but as soon as the track got shaded, we lost the handle a little bit."
Contact on pit road with Jeff Gordon, who restarted one position behind Hamlin but went on to finish second, didn’t cause any real damage to Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota at the end. Hamlin believed his issue on the final restart was simply a matter of poor track position and being in the non-preferred outside line.
"It didn’t affect us at all," Hamlin said of the collision with Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet. "What affected us were the guys that stayed out that had no shot of doing anything but holding the field up — that hurt us the most."
Given his history at Martinsville and the fact that his team had tested extensively in preparation for Sunday’s race, Hamlin harbored legitimate hopes of a win, which would have punched his ticket into the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway where four drivers will fight for the Sprint Cup championship in a winner-take-all season finale on Nov. 16.
Instead, Hamlin left Martinsville fifth in the standings — seven points behind championship leader Gordon, and two points in arrears of fourth-place Matt Kenseth, who holds the final transfer spot for Homestead.
While Hamlin is a past winner at Texas Motor Speedway — the site of this weekend’s race — and at Phoenix where the final race of the Eliminator Round will be held, Martinsville was likely Hamlin’s best opportunity in the Eliminator Round to win and automatically advance.
Hamlin isn’t giving up on being one of the final four drivers, however — especially given that last Sunday’s victory by non-Chaser Dale Earnhardt Jr. means that at least two drivers will make the final round based on points, and not wins.
"We can still do it," Hamlin said. "Now we know at least two guys are going to make it on points, but we still have to be solid and still have to do everything we can to show we can be part of the final four. Today was a good race for that. Just didn’t finish as well as we needed."
VIDEO: Larson, Ambrose tangle to bring out last Martinsville caution