After a strong fourth place showing at Daytona, Denny Hamlin continued his flying start to the season by wrapping up victory at Phoenix for his 18th career win. After last year's championship winning crew-chief Darian Grubb joined Joe Gibbs Racing from Stewart-Haas Racing over the off season, Hamlin has seen a marked improvement in form after a 2011 which failed to live up to expectations, tasking only a single win in Cup at Michigan last June. After holding off the rampant Kevin Harvick, who led the most laps but ran dry of fuel with just over a lap to go, Hamlin was quick to praise Grubb's contribution to the team.
“This is the first chance that me and [Grubb] get to work together in a race situation when he’s got to make a lot of adjustments,” said Hamlin. “It was moving forward all day. It’s still a learning process between me and Darian and communication still has a long way to go.
“But to have the success this early tells me that once we get things on the right path we’re going to be pretty good.”
“Speedway racing, everyone knows, is kind of a little bit of a gamble. We had a fast car [at Daytona], too, and I really wish we could have won it. I think we had a car that could have,” Grubb said.
“But we came here with another fast car and beat a lot of really good, stiff competition. The whole field was running within about two-tenths of a second in lap times most of the time, so it was a real tough race and we knew that we would have to play the strategy right. Luckily, we came out on top.”
This was the second time NASCAR has visited the Arizona tri-oval since it was completely repaved last year, but with the track having changed considerably since last November, those who ran in Saturday's Nationwide race, including Harvick and Hamlin – who took pole for the second tier event – had a huge advantage. With early contender Kasey Kahne– who took the spoils for Red Bull in the Cup race last fall – falling by the wayside early on, the race looked set for a dramatic two-car shootout climax, with Harvick, who won twice last year with final lap passes, ready to pounce on a struggling Hamlin. However, we were to be denied a thrilling finish as the fuel used up to catch the JGR Toyota meant Harvick's Chevrolet would be unable sustain pace to the finish. Nevertheless, it was another good weekend for the Richard Childress Racing driver, who currently sits third in points.
“A lot of them may think it’s a bad day – obviously we all want to win – but in the end, finishing second and being in contention for race wins and having the speed in the car is really what you’re looking for early in the year, and if you can knock out a couple wins, that’s what you want to do,” Harvick said.
“We have to build it one week at a time, and that confidence and that character that comes with winning or losing is part of it.”
Harvick just made it across the line ahead of leading Ford driver Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, and Nationwide competitors Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Biffle's strong performance helped banish those critics who claim he held back on the last lap of the Daytona 500 to allow his Roush-Fenway team-mate Matt Kenseth to win, although he was left to rue a faulty fuel gauge which indicated he had less fuel than he actually had, depriving him of the opportunity to take Harvick at the flag.
“With about 20 to go they were panicked to say the least,” Biffle said. “They wanted me to slow down and I felt like I had saved enough gas so I kept my rhythm about right where I had it. With about four laps to go he sounded desperate and I backed up a little more and started drafting those lap cars and then they were like, ‘The No. 29 [Harvick] is running out, try to pass him, try to pass him!‘
“I was like, ‘Well, it is a little late for that … you should have told me that a lap ago and I could have passed him.’ I missed him by like 100 feet at the start/finish line and we still had gas in the car. I made the cool-down lap and came back and still was running with no flicker of fuel pressure so I know I at least had one more lap. That being said, I probably could have easily got the No. 29 since he ran out. Obviously not the No. 11 [Hamlin] though.”
In a race that saw several alternate strategies playing out, Kurt Busch momentarily took the lead for Phoenix Racing before quickly dropping back. In the end, only Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. was able to make the alternate strategy work for him, leading for 39 laps and coming home seventh, ahead of Jeff Gordon, the pole-sitter Mark Martin and Hamlin's team-mate Joey Logano, his second top-10 finish in as many weeks.
The race saw relatively few incidents when compared to the race last year, which was blighted by a 13-car pileup instigated by a spinning Brian Vickers. Nevertheless, 7 caution flags flew, with Clint Bowyer, continuing the nightmare start to his Michael Waltrip Racing career, responsible for two of them after tyre failures. A hard crash for Casey Mears in the no.13 Germaine Racing Ford brought out the third, and Paul Menard tripping over the luckless AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray caused number four on lap 134. After further cautions for debris, a late race collision between Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman ended the race for the latter, who had fought his way heroically up to 6th in the back-up car.
“I'm 99 percent sure Carl Edwards didn't do that on purpose, but I trusted him,” a furious Newman said. “Now he can't trust me because there is a lot to be had and lost. We lost a lot today.
“I don't know how much he lost, but that's not the point. I don't consider that a deliberate move by any means, [but] we know plenty of times in this sport, what comes around goes around.”
Stewart-Haas' dreadful day was confounded by Tony Stewart evoking memories of Marcos Ambrose's late race blunder at Sonoma in 2010 which cost him the race. Switching off the engine to save fuel while running 13th, 'Smoke' proved unable to refire it, dropping him to an eventual 22nd place finish.
“I just shut the car off like we did at Daytona and turned it back on, and it never refired,” Stewart said. “That's all I can tell you. I don't know why it didn't refire. I honestly don't know. It's not really my department. I just turned the switch back on, and it never refired. I don't know why that was, but it definitely cost us a good day.”
While Stewart's maladies continued, his former crew-chief Grubb was left smiling.
“I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication, but I really don’t think that way,” Grubb said. “ I try to just think the high road all the time. I feel like I came into a very good situation. Mike Ford (Hamlin's old crew chief) built one heck of a team here with the 11 car, and the FedEx Toyota is obviously really strong. Joe Gibbs; organization is very strong.
“We’re a united team. We’re working together that way, and we are just going to keep doing it.”