Denny Hamlin‘s win together with Kyle Busch‘s third place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan on Sunday gave the Joe Gibbs Racing team a much needed fillip as they wait for the outcome of a rules transgression they were charged with as the cars of Hamlin, Busch and Joey Logano were inspected at the beginning of the meeting.
Their oil pans were confiscated and, as is the way of NASCAR, left in the hauler of the governing body for all the other teams plus the media to examine. The sump pans were not of themselves illegal, it was simply that JGR had failed to have them officially sanctioned for use. The team are insisting it was no more than a procedural error – that they assumed the offending articles could be approved at the circuit instead of being sent to NASCAR prior to the meeting.It has been suggested that the pans are particularly heavy, the one and only benefit of that being an opportunity to lower the centre of gravity of the vehicle, but that has not been confirmed. Last summer Hendrick Racing were asked to remove a propshaft housing on Jimmie Johnson‘s car which, as with JGR’s sump pans, was not illegal in itself but NASCAR took a dim view of the creative construction of a part putting so much weight so low in the car.
NASCAR will announce on Monday or Tuesday any penalties to be imposed for JGR’s procedural error but have already stated they don’t envisage a points deduction.
The three Joe Gibbs teams worked hard all weekend to return their cars to a configuration that NASCAR were happy with and not let events affect their performance. Busch certainly had a race winning car on Sunday but Hamlin did not, driving a car which consistently ran between tenth and fifteenth and feeling as though that’s where it ought to finish.
During a pitstop on lap 124 Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, asked for what Hamlin later described as a magic adjustment and the no. 11 car started making its way to the front of the field, settling into an easy second place behind Carl Edwards after what everybody assumed would be the last pitstop just under forty laps before the finish.
An unexpected yellow barely ten laps before the checkered flag when Mark Martin inadvertently put his teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., into the wall, changed the race from being potentially a fuel economy run for some into a nine lap dash for the flag.
Hamlin’s crew performed their best stop of the day, adding a splash of fuel and just changing the two right side tyres. It was enough to bring the FedEx Toyota off pitlane ahead of the field and running in clean air. At the green flag Matt Kenseth, alongside Hamlin, spun his tyres causing the rest of the field to choke up a little and gave Hamlin the opportunity to make a small break. Kenseth was given a push by fellow Roush Fenway Racing driver Edwards and for the last couple of laps Kenseth was able to pile the pressure on Hamlin. The latter kept a cool head knowing he could afford to be a bit slow into the bends just as long as he was the first one to open the throttle coming off. Thus at turns one and three the two cars were yo-yoing – squeezing together going in then opening up on the exit. Kenseth had no answer to Hamlin’s tactics and so the latter became the tenth different winner in the series so far this year and finally converted his speed during the races into an overdue victory.
“I feel like over the last six to seven weeks, we’ve been as good as anyone,” Hamlin said. “… One win’s not going to put you in [the Chase], necessarily. It might if you’re still high up in points. But we know two wins pretty much puts you in. From here on out, we know we’re one win away from having a Chase spot.”
The win actually helped Hamlin climb three places to ninth putting him inside the guaranteed places for The Chase should he still be there in September. Biggest casualty in the points table on Sunday was champion Jimmie Johnson who contrived to spin on lap eight flat-spotting all four tyres and snapping his sway (anti-roll) bar. All the necessary repairs were carried out whilst the caution flag was shown so were not as costly as they could have been but nevertheless Johnson went two laps down and his chances for the day were as good as over. He managed to get one lap back with a free pass when a yellow was thrown for debris on the track at lap 26 but that was as much ground as the no. 48 was to make up and Johnson earned seventeen points for a 27th place finish. From being second in the table just six points behind Carl Edwards, who finished fifth just behind an impressive Paul Menard, the champion dropped three places, twenty-nine points in arrears.
Kevin Harvick who didn’t really figure in the whole of the race finished 14th which helped him climb two places in the table to second ahead of Earnhardt, who had been running really well until his contretemps with Martin, and Kyle Busch.
The Sprint Cup Series adds a bit of variety next week by having to turn right as well as left at Infinion Raceway at Sonoma, California.