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Hamlin gets NASCAR season on track with win at Talladega


As an unproven rookie in 2006, restrictor plate racing put Denny Hamlin on the map. A victory in the Bud Shootout, NASCAR’s exhibition to open the season, proved the catalyst for a freshman phenom who wound up third in the final point standings. It was the start of seven straight Chase appearances, annual flirtations with the series championship and a seemingly lifetime contract to sit inside the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.  

But few athletes in sports get lifetime immunity; a spot on top of the mountain is forever a slippery slope. For Hamlin, it was a 2013 injury suffered at the hands of Fontana’s inside wall that sent his Cup career rolling downhill. Missing a month of action, he was clearly less than 100 percent after returning and briefly considered offseason surgery. Missing the Chase that season, his year evolved into a series of ugly wrecks and mechanical failures, the de facto R&D car for a Joe Gibbs Racing team focused on the championship-contending teammates of Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Only a victory in the Homestead finale salvaged a season that was otherwise insufferable.

That’s why Hamlin entered 2014 on the brink; through April, he’d stayed there, a series of rollercoaster runs leaving him vulnerable to NASCAR’s Silly Season carousel. Already down a race, this time for metal in his eye, Hamlin has yet to run better than sixth at any unrestricted track. Entering Sunday, he was holding the 16th out of 16 Chase spots and seemed on the hot seat with wheelmen like Carl Edwards — a former Joe Gibbs Racing target — potentially entering the open market.

With so much on the line it appears that plate racing, of all things, has launched Hamlin back into a sense of security. Amazingly, he had never won at Daytona or Talladega in a points-paying race, a zero remedied by Sunday’s victory in the Aaron’s 499. It’s that win, along with a second in February’s Daytona 500, that keeps him in the top-tier Chase conversation.

Chase security paired with job security. It’s part of the “new NASCAR,” the new championship format and a way in which the best racers, even during the down times, can still snatch up their place within the sport’s elite. Sunday may not have been a David Ragan type of upset, but it’s tilting the balance of power just the same.

“Through The Gears” post-Talladega we go …

FIRST GEAR: Will a stroke of luck turn Hamlin’s momentum around?
Hamlin, whose No. 11 Toyota led 12 laps on the day, wasn’t the fastest car on-track. That honor belonged to Greg Biffle, whose No. 16 Roush Ford led 58 of the 188 circuits and was ready to make a run as the cars all came barreling off Turn 4 for the white-flag lap. That’s when a tap by Alex Bowman led to a wreck back in the pack, ripping off Justin Allgaier’s rear bumper by the start-finish line and leaving NASCAR with no choice but to throw the caution flag. The only question was when.

“I looked in the mirror and I saw the smoke behind me, and I wasn't really sure whether the caution was going to come out and I didn't know what to do,” explained Biffle. “I thought about making my move on the 11 right then because I had a huge run. But I just didn’t want to pass too early.”

Turns out that hesitation made him too late. Officials finally threw the yellow halfway down the middle of the backstretch that ended the race and ruined any potential runs on the No. 11 car. It was a stroke of luck for Hamlin that NASCAR was forced to make the yellow-flag call in his favor during a year in which self-induced mistakes have typically doomed him.

“Those are momentum crushers,” he said of three straight top-10 runs turned disastrous before Sunday. “We’ve been finishing right around 20th for three weeks in a row. That can really take its toll on the team. A win like this kind of makes you forget all those things, and it obviously gives you a clean slate for the rest of the summer to start over.”

It’s a tough pill for Biffle to swallow, his contract expiring and in much the same boat as Hamlin is now. That’s what’s beautiful about NASCAR in 2014 — the racing is that close to the point one result like this could alter the careers of two drivers.

SECOND GEAR: Brad the Rebel?  
NASCAR is used to Talladega “Big Ones,” major crashes sparked by the pack racing that’s part of restrictor plates. But the biggest one Sunday, caused by Brad Keselowski, left a lot of drivers steaming mad at the 2012 champ, who’s getting busy returning to his spot on the mantle as NASCAR’s independent “bad boy.”

If the No. 2 car was on the lead lap, losing control and setting off the wreck wouldn’t be as big of a deal. But in this case, Keselowski was six laps behind, running dead last and trying fruitlessly to earn a Lucky Dog he’d never get. Jamie McMurray, who was one lap ahead in 42nd, would keep earning them even if Keselowski was to lead the field to a caution flag. In the end, it seemed frustration over an earlier incident with Danica Patrick took its toll, a save that still broke a radiator hose and left Keselowski limping around with a car once capable of winning the race.

“I just spun out in front of the whole field,” Keselowski said, his aggression getting the best of him in a Turn 4 spin that affected well over a dozen cars. “I don’t know why.”

What we do know is Keselowski started the interview with a laugh, a reaction sure to elicit anger from several inside the NASCAR garage. His enemies, which still include Kurt Busch from a Martinsville incident, keep growing. Matt Kenseth, last weekend’s Richmond target, shot back by calling Keselowski’s moves “mind-boggling,” the same type of verbiage Keselowski had angrily spilled at Kenseth after that race.

Veteran Jeff Gordon was more politically correct on-camera in calling Keselowski’s strategy “unfortunate.” On the radio? He referred to the outspoken driver as “an idiot” and others in the garage were spouting the same. There’s a right to keep racing under all circumstances and no one’s saying the No. 2 car should roll over. But better judgment, like running at the back of the draft while waiting for a yellow flag, could have saved the sheet metal of one-quarter of Sunday’s starting field.

THIRD GEAR: Big names, big wrecks.
Keselowski wasn’t the only big name to lose it on his own in the draft. Jimmie Johnson also spun through no contact in a second big wreck that took out half-a-dozen cars. It appears the new rules package, combined with these cars, leaves them inherently unstable in the draft. That brought handling into the conversation at “mash the gas” Talladega for the first time in several years.

“The back end just slid out from under me,” said Johnson. “It just took a big lazy slide.”

The wrecks, while destructive, were a net positive in that drivers thought they needed to actually drive at Talladega. Pack racing was more like the old school version of the late ’90s where three-wide and aggression became the norm and not the exception. Few if any laps were run in single-file succession as the drivers felt compelled to mix it up.

Of course, there will be consequences whenever that happens. That’ll be there until NASCAR chooses to finally take the plates off.

FOURTH GEAR: David slayed by Goliath  
For last year’s upset Talladega winner David Ragan, a repeat performance was not in the cards. His Front Row Motorsports Ford was an innocent victim in one of the day’s late-race wrecks. Unfortunately for most of NASCAR’s underdogs, that proved a running theme in a slew of disappointing performances. Only AJ Allmendinger who ran fifth for JTG-Daugherty Racing, represented the “little guys” inside the top 10. But even that was an underdog illusion of sorts, considering his top-quality Richard Childress Racing chassis and equipment for the race.

If anything, a call could be given to Landon Cassill, whose unsponsored No. 40 Chevy hung on to snag an 11th place. However, many teams were critical of the car afterwards, as in their view Cassill held up the outside line with some bold moves over the race’s final few laps. The raw speed just wasn’t there. And as for the rookies? Only Kyle Larson (ninth) palced inside the top 10. Most others found themselves part of the Talladega wreckage that claimed so many.

Bowles:The return of "Bad Brad" hits NASCAR at Talladega

Danica Patrick made waves by leading six laps at Talladega early on; it’s the first Cup race she’s led outside of the last two Daytona 500s. Eventually, her No. 10 GoDaddy car faded back into the pack, one of several Hendrick engines that suffered from overheating problems but the raw speed gives the team hope going forward. “It was a good car to lead with,” said Patrick after running 22nd. “Which is something that, as a team we’ve struggled with.” … Surprise pole-sitter Brian Scott, who never led a lap, was complimentary of Tony Stewart on Twitter after they were both involved in the Brad Keselowski wreck. “I have to say that Stewart is a class act,” he said. “I was slow to get out and he was there to help me unplug and get out and off his car hood.” Stewart, who is still recovering from a broken leg, was uninjured as well but both drivers were out on the spot. ... Speaking of Scott and Stewart, they were 42nd and 43rd, respectively, after completing 136 laps. It’s the most all 43 cars have run at Talladega in a race that started so clean since the spring race in 2002.

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.