Knees-y Does It: Denny Hamlin’s Late Charge Take Martinsville Win

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin overcame a painful knee, and a seemingly inexplicable late pit strategy call to take his first of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season at Martinsville, as the series over came the weather, postponing the race by 24 hours.

The delay, after rain hit the Virginia half mile on Sunday, came at extra cost to Hamlin who had hoped to have surgery on his knee, which he injured playing basketball ahead of the season, before using the off-weekend over Easter to recover.

Even with the Monday race Hamlin had still hoped to fit his surgery in, ready to travel to Charlotte in the knowledge that if he could arrive before 5:30pm he could still have the operation.

That plan was forgotten as the no.11 Toyota travelled to victory lane.

Rain also claimed the qualifying session; owner points setting the starting line-up handing Kevin Harvick a free pole position that he did not pass up, quickly jumping out to a lead he held for the first 58 laps, surrendering it only during pitstops at the lap 44 caution for Joe Nemechek's spin.

However, a typical Martinsville race packed with as many tyre failures and mechanical woes as close racing, soon claimed Harvick among its first victims. The Californian slowed out of second place shortly after 100 laps before taking his car to the garage with what would turn out to be a brake problem, with several teams suggesting that the car had been leaking brake fluid onto the track.

Harvick's departure for long repairs (he would eventually finish 35th, sacrificing the points lead) passed the Richard Childress Racing challenge. It was a responsibility the veteran looked to be taking in his stride as the team tries to rubber stamp its 2010 resurgence with a win. He first took the lead from Kurt Busch on lap 149 and would lead for a total of five times and 140 laps, compared to a 2009 when he led 94 all season.

For much of those 140 laps Burton swapped the lead with Hamlin, who had spent the first half of the race working his way up from his 19th place starting spot, the pair battling side-by-side, often around lapped traffic including several damaged cars numerous laps behind after previous problems.

A majority of these problems were caused by tyre problems, exacerbated by the pounding (especially in terms of NASCAR) that the brakes take at the track. Nemechek's early spin was just one of the thirteen caution periods, with many more similar incidents not bringing out the yellow flag, including two Juan Montoya crashes, both of which saw the Colombian's left front tyre blow sending his into the wall, the first crash severely damaging the car.

Montoya's Earnhardt-Ganassi teammate Jamie McMurray would also suffer problems while Robby Gordon and Regan Smith would suffer multiple problems, scuppering the former's attempt to squeeze back inside the top-35 in owner points.

There were also the normal spins associated with short track racing, arguably exacerbated by NASCAR's recently endorsed 'have at it boys' approach. Again several cars were serial victims, Elliott Sadler finding his car twice faced into traffic. But there were also serial aggressors, Marcos Ambrose spinning Greg Biffle and Kevin Conway, Biffle threatening to spin the Australian in retaliation if Ambrose did not allow him back past at a later restart.

Then tyres had an unexpected role to play in the final laps of the race. Possibly as a result to damage after some robust racing for the lead Jeff Burton fell back with a tyre going down, though with only 14 laps remaining and the field strung out after an 80 lap green flag stint he opted not to pit only for the tyre to give up with eight laps remaining, bringing out the caution.

What followed confounded expectations as leader Denny Hamlin and teammate Kyle Busch in second pitted for new tyres, only for most of the lead lap runners to stay out. When the green flag came out again with only four laps to go it appeared that JGR had given away their chance at win, but their drivers were already making their way to front.

“If we didn’t pit, I can assure you 90% of the guys behind us would have pitted and we would have definitely lost the race if that’s the case,” Hamlin reasoned after the race, though undoubtedly with some hindsight. “To me, I think getting down to it, if I had to put a percentage on it, no matter what we do at the end of this race, whether we pit or don’t pit, it was going to be about a 20% chance we win this race, that was about it. Things were going to have to happen.

Busch and Hamlin restarted from eighth and ninth respectively and were quickly putting their fresher tyres to good use, forcing their way past cars three wide into corners.

But while Hamlin had made it to fourth, Busch found himself on the outside of Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard (another serial aggressor), Menard bouncing Busch hard into the outside wall.

The loss of his wingman was, ironically, exactly what Hamlin needed as the yellow flag came out seconds before leader Jeff Gordon started his final lap, when the yellow flag would have ended the race.

Instead Hamlin got a green-white-checkered last chance.

Hamlin had one mile to get past Gordon, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth, a task the trio made far easier.

Into turn one Kenseth pushed Gordon wide, in turn making Newman check-up as he went to complete the corner. The move incensed Gordon, who later described how he “was going to make sure [Kenseth] wasn't going to win the race after that”. The four time champion was true to his word turning down into Kenseth along the back straight so nearly taking Hamlin out as he looked for a way past the feuding pair.

Perhaps with a puncture from the rubbing, or perhaps simply going to fast Kenseth dived into turn three only to come out the outside against the outside wall after yet more contact with Gordon, contact that held the no.24 up just enough to first Hamlin, then Joey Logano slip past onto the final lap on their way to sealing a 1-2 finish for Joe Gibbs and a homestate win for Hamlin.