Hamlin brings Toyota roaring back at Martinsville
Flag to Flag: When we go green flag to checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway for Sunday's STP 500, we make over a dozen yellow flag stops in between. It was one of those day's at NASCAR's oldest track and it was a great one for Virginia-native Denny Hamlin at his home track. Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota was not always the fastest during the race, but he overcame a pit road penalty before the halfway point to score his fifth-career win at the track. Hamlin started 15th and methodically worked toward the top 10. But the pit road penalty for an uncontrolled tire catapulted him back outside of the top 20. To Hamlin's advantage were the periodic yellow flags that slowed the field. There were no scheduled green flag stops all day. This gave teams plenty of chances to pit and adjust their cars and other drivers extra time to repair their machines and make up from mistakes. Hamlin steadily drove toward the top again and eventually wrested the top spot away from Kevin Harvick (8th), who had the best car midway through the race.
Harvick had a strong ride and drove to the front from 17th starting position. But the handle went away on the No. 4 Chevy on the second-to-last green flag run and Harvick eventually fell outside of the top 10. A final pit stop and some passes on the final restart got Harvick some spots back, but not enough to catch Hamlin, whom he swapped the lead with in some great battles several times.
Joey Logano (3rd) started from the pole and led 108 laps early. During a caution in middle of the race, some cars stayed out and got mixed with the leaders. Logano was on the outside of Michael Annett (39th), when Annett got loose and spun both of the them out. Logano recovered, but never got back up front.
Matt Kenseth (4th) gained the lead off of on the second-to-last pit stops, but Tony Stewart (20th) and Cole Whitt (22nd) stayed out. Kenseth quickly disposed of them and then did a competitor a solid. Jeff Gordon (9th) got body slammed early in the race by Kenseth and radioed his own spotter to ask if Kenseth could give him the inside line on that restart as payback. Sure enough, Kenseth acquiesced to the gentleman's agreement and gave Gordon the spot. Eventually the would battle for the lead and Gordon would have the top spot for the first time with just a few dozen laps remaining, when the final caution brought the entire field to pit road.
All the leaders pitted, but Gordon got nabbed for speeding on pit road. Just before NASCAR handed down the penalty, Hamlin tried to out-brake Gordon and Logano leaving the pits, so he could start on the inside. They caught on and Gordon slowed down in time. But it didn't matter. Gordon had to restart 20th, but gained back up to 9th in the final laps.
Hendrick Motorsports did not have the horse shoe vibe going at Martinsville. Kasey Kahne (11th) was solid and all day and led some laps by not pitting at one point. But Jimmie Johnson (35th) struggled big time with his No. 48 car's handling and then took the Chevy behind the wall for a while with mechanical issues. He had complained about power steering problems earlier. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (36th) had a strong car, but his gear shifter broke and the No. 88 team made multiple stops under multiple cautions to repair it. A vibration in his racecar is what broke the multiple shifters the team bolted in the car. Then the field bottled up on lap 229 and Earnhardt Jr. slammed and spun Paul Menard (23rd), destroying his own front end and sending him to the garage. Then Chase Elliott (38th) did okay very early in the race, but got his car bent up on a couple of restarts and broke out the radiator. He went to the garage and finished 73 laps down.
The final restart of the day saw Kenseth lead the field to green, but Hamlin chase him down and pass him with ease. Then Brad Keselowski (2nd) stalked the No. 11 car over the closing laps, but just couldn't catch. He got close enough to tap Hamlin's car a couple of times, including on the front straightaway coming to the checkered flag, but not enough to stop Hamlin from scoring the 24th win of his Sprint Cup career and a berth in the 2015 Chase for the Cup. The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were all strong at some point and if not for Carl Edwards' (17th) lap 434 spin, all four likely would have finished in the top 10.
The top 10 were Hamlin, Keselowski, Logano, Kenseth, David Ragan (ran in the top 15 in the first half of the race and scooted into the top 10 and held it late), Martin Truex Jr. (top 10s in all six 2015 races), Danica Patrick (2nd-best finish of her career and not a fluke at all), Harvick, Gordon, and Jamie McMurray (also strong most of the race).
Harvick leads the point standings by 24 over Logano. All five winners this season are in the top 16 in points. Edwards, Patrick, and Gordon are all tied for 16th in the points and Clint Bowyer is two points out of that spot.
This version of NASCAR at Martinsville again displayed why NASCAR should race at more short tracks. There were comers and goers through the race and the good cars (namely Hamlin) were able to weed through traffic and get back to the front. And, of course, the racing action was classic and rough and tumble. Cautions did extend race more than desired, but after three races out west, NASCAR is back home. Not because Martinsville is near Charlotte, but because the Cup Series has run its first short track race of the season and done so at its oldest track. Cheers, Martinsville. See you in the playoffs in October!
RaceTweet: Hamlin comes back and notches Toyota's first win in almost a year. Keselowski doesn't bump him from the way. Elliott's debut foiled early.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Denny Hamlin - He led the third-most laps in the race and drove decisively to keep Keselowski, a driver with whom he's feuded multiple times, at bay. Hamlin's victory at Martinsville is his first there since 2010 and is certainly a big momentum shot for not just the 11 team, but all of Joe Gibbs Racing.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson - Johnson seemed a lock to contend in Sunday's race, but struggled early and went to the garage at the midpoint with mechanical problems. The 48 team already has a win this season, but the group just seems off and definitely not as fast as some of the competition. Johnson sits 11th in points.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Joey Logano - He didn't get the win, but a younger Logano might not have been able to drive through the field like this version did. Logano recovered from a lap 220 spin to be in position to take the lead if Hamlin or Keselowski had tangled. Keselowski also made a good comeback in his own right, after issues getting in and out of his pit stall took him from the top 5 to 17th. The experimental setup that the Penske cars ran (since they both are sealed into the Chase) obviously worked and could mean trouble for the rest of the field in the Chase.
Ghost Driver: Ryan Newman - The No. 31 Chevy started 2nd and seemed primed to continue the good runs for the team. That wasn't the case. After handling issues sent the car back through the field, Newman got damage in the multi-car wreck on lap 287 and ended the day 27th, four laps down.
Never Fear, Underdog Is Here: Danica Patrick - She drives for the big Stewart-Haas Racing team, but Patrick had a surprisingly good run. Patrick not only notched her way into the top 10, but did a great job passing some good cars. Her 7th-place finish is a small victory and a changing of the tide in the right direction for her relationship with crew chief Daniel Knost, who won this race a year ago with Kurt Busch.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kyle Larson - This is a bizarre racing season. The Busch brothers, Vickers, and now Larson - all missing races. Larson fainted during a Saturday autograph session, eventually got taken to a Charlotte hospital, and kept overnight and into the race for more tests. Regan Smith piloted the No. 42 to a solid 16th-place finish. But Larson must have felt tortured seeing his racecar on the track without him behind the wheel. His status for the Texas race in two weeks is unknown.
The Jimmie Johnson Lucky Horse Shoe: Kurt Busch - We're rolling this new award out and fittingly so. Busch only finished 14th Sunday, but Busch got a bit of a scare a couple of times. The biggest of which was on a late restart, where NASCAR black flagged the No. 41 for changing from the top to the bottom lane before the start-finish line. Instead of serving a pass through penalty, Busch's team convinced NASCAR of something Busch said very calmly behind the wheel - he was supposed to restart on the bottom and, thus, did not break the rules. Busch also fell a lap down and got a free pass and was able to come back from another penalty to score a solid finish. Busch has a track record of getting scorned by NASCAR and then having the punishment rolled back.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: NASCAR has got to get this debris caution thing figured out. Last week, they threw a caution for debris that they did not find with two laps to go, a move that cost Kurt Busch the race win at Auto Club Speedway. This week, since there were lots of yellow flags, NASCAR did not keep its fingers as close to the caution lights switch. There was one time in particular, where NASCAR got word of debris, its spotters confirmed it was on the racetrack, but NASCAR never threw a yellow. Why does debris on the racetrack matter differently at different tracks? Do the high speeds at bigger tracks mean that smaller debris can cut tires, cause wrecks, and be more dangerous? That doesn't seem so.
Then with 39 laps to go, NASCAR threw a yellow for a driver's drink bottle on the racing surface. That bunched up the field and made the finish closer.
Point blank - NASCAR should not throw cautions just to spice up the race. This completely undermines the legitimacy of the sport and drives away fans. Consistency is the best policy and the policy of generating excitement has hurt the sport much more than it has helped it.
Georgia on My Mind: The big story of the weekend for Georgia racing fans was Chase Elliott's Sprint Cup debut, which fizzled out kind of early. Elliott tried to dial down his expectations and excitement going into the weekend. He qualified 27th, was solid in practice, climbed as high as 22nd in the race, but then started falling back. After his No. 25 Chevy got significant crash damage, Elliott stayed mired in the back and then got roughed up some more. A trip to the garage placed him 38th at race's end, but he did finish the race and never did bring out a yellow.
David Ragan seemed mediocre most of the weekend, but the switch turned on midway through the race and Ragan drove into the top 10. His crew repaired some hood damage, but Ragan never fell out of the top 10 in the race's last third. He gained spots in the end and finished 5th, his best finish of the year and one that leaves him 13th in points.
Saturday's Camping World Truck Series race wasn't bad for Georgia drivers. John Wes Townley started an impressive 5th, fell back during the race, but got helped by cautions and finished 8th. He sits 6th in points. Brandon Jones made his first start of the season, starting 6th, spinning on lap 143 of 258, and finishing 15th. Korbin Forrister started 27th and struggled all day, finishing 23rd. Forrister is tied with Kyle Busch Motorsports' Justin Boston for 13th in points.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Joey Logano dominates, but overcomes late bumps and scrapes to win his first-career NCWTS race.
Next: NASCAR takes Easter weekend off, but returns in two weeks at Texas Motor Speedway. The Camping World Truck Series is off until May at Kansas Speedway.