Hamlin outduels Johnson and Harvick in a crazy race at Texas Motor Speedway
by Matt Taliaferro
There were monkeys selling programs, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a fistfight, a virtual firing of an entire team and, at the end of the day, a new No. 1. It may sound like a mid-1980s version of Saturday Night Roller Derby that would make Ralphie Valladares and the L.A. T-Birds proud, and in all actuality it felt like it, but it was four-wheeled NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action that put on the show in Texas.
After the smoke cleared and the tempers cooled, it Denny Hamlin who sprinted away from Matt Kenseth in a three-lap shootout at Texas Motor Speedway to win the AAA Texas 500. The win vaulted Hamlin past Jimmie Johnson and into the points lead, a position he holds by 33 points with two races remaining in the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Hamlin, Johnson and Kevin Harvick entered the event within 38 points of one another in the standings, and each had to claw his way from deep in the field at the onset. By the 100-lap mark the trio had worked its way into the top 10, but the glare of the spotlight was set to shine on another Chase trio — Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon.
Busch got the antics started when he was spun on lap 159. After pitting for four fresh tires, he was nailed by NASCAR for speeding on pit road. Brought back in the pits to serve his one-lap penalty, an ESPN in-car camera caught the mercurial Busch flipping off a NASCAR official in a manner that would make Johnny Cash proud.
After his exit, NASCAR brought him back in to sit for two additional laps for what the sanctioning body called "unsportsmanlike conduct." All the while, a meltdown ensued on Busch’s in-car radio between driver and crew chief.
Just as Busch was at his trending peak on the internet, Burton and Gordon did their best to re-enact the 1979 Daytona 500, wrecking under caution and tangling in a physical altercation on the backstretch. Burton claimed he simply made a mistake, as the sun’s glare blinded him, causing the collision with Gordon. The four-time champion was in no mood to hear it though, and walked to Burton’s car where he took a shot at the respected veteran — referred to as "The Mayor" in the garage — before being separated by officials.
"Coming off Turn 4, he drove underneath me," Burton said. "I should have let him go, and I didn’t. The caution came out, and he pulled up next to me to tell me he was upset, and he went on. Then I went to pull up next to him and acknowledge him, to say he was right, and I turned left, and he was turning left, and we just hung up. When we hung, off we went."
Gordon, however, did not share the sentiment.
"He felt like I came up on him and that he didn’t mean to wreck me, but, I’m sorry, I will never believe that," Gordon said. "I’ve been driving a race car long enough to know what your intentions are, and I know what they were there He deserved a lot more than that, I can tell you ...
"That kind of stuff is just ridiculous and uncalled for. It was pretty stupid, and he admitted it later, but I certainly wanted to show him how upset I was, and I’m not ashamed of anything I did."
Adding to the mayhem was Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, who employed Gordon’s pit crew to service the No. 48 after the No. 24 entry was eliminated. The normally reliable 48 crew cost Johnson spots on pit road in two separate slow stops.
"Ultimately it’s my decision, obviously, but we needed to do something," Knaus said after the race. "The 24-48 shop has always operated as a team and that’s the way that we see it. It’s sad that we have to do that but you know, in the interest of Hendrick Motorsports and what we’ve got to do, you’ve got to go do that stuff."
Johnson finished ninth, three spots behind fellow Chase competitor Harvick, in sixth.
Overshadowed in the chaos of the first 200 laps was the dominance of Greg Biffle, who led 224 of 334 laps, only to fade late when he lost second gear on his Roush Fenway Ford. The failed gear prevented him from coming up to speed on two late-race restarts, although he managed to rebound for a fifth-place showing.
The circuit heads to Phoenix International Raceway this Sunday for the penultimate event of the season with Hamlin 33 points up on Johnson and 59 ahead of Harvick. Johnson has ruled Phoenix in his 14 Cup starts, averaging a series-best 4.9-place average finish while notching four victories at the one-mile oval.
It should be a good one, but the extra curriculars that enhanced the Texas show may be hard to top.