Denny Hamlin survived a long afternoon of mayhem at Talladega Superspeedway to win Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, a battle that ended with a whimper instead of a bang.
Hamlin won when a crash at the back of the field on the last lap brought out a caution flag, freezing the field and preventing a race back to the checkered flag. Hamlin, who was in the lead when the yellow waved, was credited with his 24th Sprint Cup victory in 300 career starts.
Greg Biffle finished second in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford, followed by Michael Waltrip Racing teammates Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers, and AJ Allmendinger of JTG Daugherty Racing.
With many of the best racers in the field taken out by earlier accidents, Hamlin was in the right place at the right time to capitalize with his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
In the process, Hamlin became the eighth different winner of the Sprint Cup season. And he virtually assured himself a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"Well, we really just want to win races, regardless of what the implications mean for the Chase," said Hamlin, who was victorious for the first time in 33 restrictor-plate races. "It feels good to be back in Victory Lane in a points-paying event."
Hamlin’s last points-race victory came in the final race of the 2013 Sprint Cup season and this one meant he’s now won at least once in all nine of his full-time series seasons. And it gave JGR a weekend sweep, with Elliott Sadler winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series race here on Saturday.
Despite finally breaking through at a restrictor-plate track, Hamlin said this type of racing is not his forte.
"I’m still a short-track guy," said the Virginia native. "Those are my roots, that’s where I love racing the most, but we’ve come a long way. We couldn’t finish 22nd at superspeedway races for the longest time and now it seems like when we go we’ve got the knowledge and car that can win."
For runner-up Biffle, the final caution curtailed his chances at victory. “I was backing up on the backstretch to get a run at him (Hamlin) and then the caution came out and it was like, ‘Dang it,’” Biffle said.
It was a strange afternoon.
Starting from the pole was surprising Brian Scott, making just his fifth Sprint Cup start, as 11 of the top 12 qualifiers were Chevrolets.
The excitement began on Lap 6, when Danica Patrick took her first lead since the Daytona 500, showing good speed in her Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
Eight laps later, Brad Keselowski tried to pass Patrick at the end of the frontstretch, but spun around when he moved down into her. Keselowski made a great save and was able to continue despite a lurid infield spin. Unfortunately, he lost a water hose in his car and went seven laps down getting it repaired.
In the early stages of the race, Joey Logano’s Team Penske Ford was the clear class of the field, able to go to front at will.
Then it was Biffle out front in his Ford, leading 37 laps by the halfway point of the race, which was Lap 94.
On Lap 137, Keselowski was five laps down when he got loose in Turn 4 and went around in front of Trevor Bayne. The accident involved a total of 15 cars, including Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and others.
"It just broke loose and spun out," Keselowski said. "It just didn’t work out for us."
When the race restarted on Lap 144, Biffle led, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. going out front just three laps later.
As the laps wound down, a variety of drivers took turns up front — Biffle, Vickers and Hamlin among them.
But this being Talladega, there was more wrecking to come. On Lap 174, Johnson spun in Turn 4 and when he did the accident collected a total of seven cars, including Kurt Busch, Logano and last year’s winner, David Ragan.
Then, after the track went green, Carl Edwards lost a left-rear tire in Turn 1 on Lap 183, taking out Ryan Newman and Cole Whitt with him.
That set up a two-lap shootout for the victory, but the final-lap crash deep in the field gave Hamlin the win.