Hamlin ends drought, wins in Michigan
by Matt Taliaferro
The old racing adage that states “the best car doesn’t always win” has applied to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series more often than not in 2011. Fuel mileage, pit strategy and late-race track position have been the deciding factors through the spring and early summer, trumping good old fashioned horsepower.
Denny Hamlin, fresh off Sunday’s win at Michigan International Speedway, can relate.
“We were truly dominant one year ago in this race,” Hamlin said following the Heluva Good Sour Cream Dips 400. “(Today) we were a second- to third-place car. In the fall (August, 2010) we finished second. But today we actually were a little worse. But we got a win.”
“We” being the operative term. Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew bested those of Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch under a round of yellow flag stops with less than 10 laps remaining. When the green flag waved with five circuits to go, Kenseth — lined up on the front row to Hamlin’s inside — spun his tires. Hamlin got the jump he needed, and in clean air held off a charging Kenseth for a .281-second win.
“I was kind of painted in a box where my car was so tight the last few laps I had no choice but to make sure I cleared him (Kenseth) on corner exit (off of Turn 2),” Hamlin explained. “If he got beside me on corner entry, that was OK, as long as I was able to get back to the gas sooner than him.”
Kenseth, whose team had fueling problems earlier in the race that nearly cost him an opportunity to race for the win, admitted the final restart was key.
“Unfortunately I didn’t do a great job on the restart,” Kenseth said. “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. (It) took us about 10 laps. Didn’t have enough to get around him once he cleared me there.”
Busch finished third, Paul Menard fourth and Edwards fifth.
The normally agreeable Edwards delivered a message to NASCAR following the race, frustrated with cars that he deemed too aerodynamically sensitive. In a television interview, Edwards called for car bodies that aren’t as affected by downforce when racing near others on the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks that comprise the bulk of the 36-race slate.
“Downforce is such a factor in these cars, and I’m really hoping NASCAR will take the opportunity in 2013 (when a new car body is scheduled to debut) to take downforce away so the fans can see the guys race cars and not race downforce. That would be cool. Track position was just huge and I just wish it wasn’t like that.”
Hamlin and Busch took two of the top three finishing positions despite drawing NASCAR’s ire during inspection on Friday, when all three Joe Gibbs Racing entries were found to have oil pans that had not been approved by the sanctioning body. The oil pans — which normally weigh four to five pounds — measured in at a whopping 20 to 30 pounds, possibly creating more of the downforce Edwards referred to.
“The oil pan thing ultimately was our responsibility to get,” JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. “When (the rule) says ‘things approved by NASCAR,’ (then) every piece has to be approved by NASCAR. A lot of times we bring stuff to the track. They’ll say, ‘Hey, run it this week, don’t bring it back, make these changes to it.’ Our fault was thinking we would have that conversation. When we got here, (NASCAR) didn’t like it. I think they thought it was a different issue than it actually wound up being.
“The reality of it is it was our fault for not bringing it to them and laying it out. It’s a good lesson learned.”
The win was Hamlin’s first of the season, vaulting him to ninth in the point standings. A championship contender one year ago, it has been a rocky start to the 2011 campaign for the Virginia native, who had five wins at this in the season last year.
“My goal is still to get in the top 5 in points,” Hamlin said. “If I wouldn’t have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we really could be possibly fighting for trying to lead the points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind, it’s going to be tough to do that.
“My realistic goal is top 5 in points, (so I) don’t have to worry about any kind of wild cards once we get to Richmond.”