Denny Hamlin, barely two and a half weeks after having surgery on his knee, emerged victorious in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race that only truly came to life in the closing stage.
Postponed until noon ET on Monday after rain washed out most of the weekend's running the Samsung Mobile 500 was, for much of the race a story of three Hendrick cars – Jimmie Johnson and defending race winner Jeff Gordon aided and abetted by a strong showing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Even in the closing laps as Hamlin headed for the win he had Jimmie Johnson zeroing in on the rear bumper of his Fedex sponsored Toyota.
It was Jeff Gordon, whose win last Spring was his first at the 1.5mile track, who led the charge for the team for most of the race, first seizing the lead on lap 137 from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon a man who has seen potential wins slip though his fingers on green-white-checker restarts the last two races appeared determined to snap his winless streak, the normally docile driver giving way to a far more forceful version.
It was Gordon who prevented Jeff Burton from reaching pitlane when the field pitted under an earlier caution. The Richard Childress driver, running ahead of Gordon at the time tried to bluff, staying on the track until the last possible moment before diving for the pits. However, when he made his move he found Gordon's no.24 car already there and refusing to yield, forcing him to abort the late move, though not before he had clipped the glorified traffic cone NASCAR use to mark the start of pitlane and being sent to the tail end of the field in punishment.
There was more aggressive driving from Gordon once he had taken the lead, fighting with teammate (and the car he officially owns) Jimmie Johnson. The pair have combined, according to the statistics shown mid-race, for ten 1-2 finishes, including several when they were fighting each other for a championship, but their on-track battle have always remained clean.
That was not the case on lap 241 as the pair swept through the tri-oval.
Heading for the start-finish line the two came together, Johnson's left-front wheel placing a donut on Gordon's side as the two bounced off each other. Soon after Gordon was unapologetic, suggesting to his crew chief over the radio that Jimmie Johnson wanted to be “treated different” to everyone else.
It was a skirmish of words, rather than a war that continued once the pair were out of the cars, Johnson recycling Gordon's own words admitting he was “disappointed” with the way Gordon had raced with him. I was a word he later reused in his post-race press conference though he also urged the media not to create “trouble at HMS” stories, claiming it “was really no big deal” and that they would “get it talked out”.
However, despite the action between the pair the race really only ignited with David Reutimann's engine which expired theatrically bringing out the race's sixth caution with 22 laps to go.
With several teams deciding to take a chance on pit strategy and take two tyres, Gordon and Johnson, who had both taken four new tyres restarted seventh and eighth respectively. It appeared the race was headed for another battle of tyre strategies, just what had cost Gordon his chances of wins at Phoenix and Martinsville.
But Gordon's challenge was a end before that became a factor. One lap after the restart Greg Biffle made it three wide with Gordon and Tony Stewart through turn four, with Johnson looking to follow through in the tri-oval. As the pack all tried to head for the inside of the track Stewart bounced off Gordon and was then hit by Carl Edwards behind him turning him back into Gordon sending the no.24 (which led a race high 124 laps none the less) glancing into the outside wall before sliding back down infront of Edwards, Stewart, A.J. Allmendinger and several others while Juan Montoya's dismal run of luck continued, diving onto the infield to avoid the crash only to find no grip on the damp and hitting the wall head one.
The crash took out nine cars, though it still could have been worse with only staggering evasive driving from Ryan Newman and Scott Speed seeing them through the carnage, the latter standing on the brakes to avoid Gordon's wounded machine as it slid down the banking.
Even in retirement Gordon was aggressive, seeking out Tony Stewart as soon as the pair had pulled themselves out of their cars. Stewart assured that there was no accusation of blame in the discussion, though he admitted it was his fault.
And at many race, that may have been enough action.
The clean-up necessitated a twenty minute red flag, before the race re-started with Jeff Burton, back from his earlier penalty at the head of the race. Burton lead was quickly taken by Hamlin, with his Joe Gibbs teammate Kyle Busch following through as Burton fell back after scraping the wall.
There were similar problems for Matt Kenseth, who had taken the green flag in sixth though, unlike Burton, Kenseth was forced to pit with flat tyre dropping him to a 20th place finish.
It was looking like a familiar story at the front, with Jimmie Johnson's four tyres starting to show their pace versus the two new tyres on the pair of Toyota's ahead. He easily rounded up Busch, and headed for Hamlin with only a couple of laps remaining.
Without the extra help from a green-white-checker finish Johnson could do nothing but gain with every metre of the final lap to within two-tenths at the finish line.
Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images