Denny Hamlin became the fifth driver to take his place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s season ending Chase with victory in the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
To do so he had to first drive back from a penalty incurred during a pitstop before resisting the attentions of Auto Club Speedway winner Brad Keselowski through the final run to the checkered flag. Through the closing laps Keselowski threatened to reach the rear bumper of Hamlin’s Fedex sponsored Toyota, but it was only in the final corner that he applied the front bumper in an effort to snatch the win.
Accelerating sharply off the corner Keselowski caught the left-rear of Hamlin’s car, pushing the leading into a slide which he controlled, straightening up before he crossed the finish line. In many ways the race was – for the drivers who battled to the end – a stark contrast to the event the previous week. It was Keselowski who escaped a last lap attack in California, while Hamlin had been taken from the lead battle by a penalty.
Just like a week ago Hamlin had been placed at the end of the longest line on a restart after officials deemed his pit crew to have lost control of a tyre after he led the field down pitlane for a round of stops under caution. Fortunately for Hamlin, his team’s error came relatively early in the race, on lap 165 under one of the ten yellow flags in the first half of the race that put the event on pace to set new records for the number of cautions.
However, even deep in the combative pack around the half mile short track Hamlin’s speed – and the quality of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota showed through as he was able to move back up the order, retaking a position in the top five barely 100 laps later before continuing to move towards the point, en route to his fifth win on the Virginia track.
He was not the only driver to recover from problems to take a finish in the top ten. Pole sitter Joey Logano was – at one point in the race – facing backwards down the track after contact with Michael Annett but rebounded the take third place. Martin Truex Jr., another to feature early in the race looked as though his challenge would be short-lived, the #78 falling from third position within the first 50 laps, trailing smoke as the driver struggled around the track without power steering. But, the team were able to take advantage of one of the flurry of early cautions, diagnosing and remedying the problem during a sequence of stops under the caution. His path back to the front was completed when he stayed under a subsequent caution, going on to lead for 23 laps as the chasing pack was caught behind Danica Patrick and Landon Cassill – both of whom followed Truex’s lead strategy wise.
Truex would finish sixth with Patrick seventh, recording a career best finish.
Despite her result the afternoon at Martinsville was a relatively poor day for Stewart-Haas Racing, though that says as much about the form they – and specifically Kevin Harvick – have started 2015 with as it does of their short track showing. Chasing a ninth consecutive top two finish Harvick led a race high 154 laps but faded from the lead battles through the final 100 laps to finish eighth, one place ahead for Jeff Gordon, who had to drive back up the order after copping a pitlane speeding penalty under what would be the final caution less than 40 laps from the end.
Just like their junior technical partners SHR the Hendrick Motorsports team struggled for results, Gordon the only one of the team’s five drivers to finish in the top ten. Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott, making his Sprint Cup debut, crumpled the front of his car against the rear of Brett Moffitt’s #55 in a concertina under braking. A similar fate befell Dale Earnhardt Jr. when contact between David Ragan and Casey Mears sent a ripple back through the pack that ended with the #88 piling into the rear of Paul Menard’s Richard Childress Chevy. The damage to Jr.’s car put him in the garage for repairs but only continued a troubled day for the #88 team started by a broken gear shifter, the repairs to which lost them track position and put the driver in the midst of the snarling pack.
Jimmie Johnson struggled all day, fighting against an ill handling car. Like his teammate having to race in the midfield put in the line of fire in a race when almost every car finished the race with some sort of damage. The same incident that put Earnhardt Jr. in the garage left the #48 with damage that resulted in a lengthy stay in the pitlane and resulted in a 35th place finish, one position above Earnhardt Jr.
The team it was a banner day for, though, was JGR. The week when news of team president J. D. Gibbs’ health issues broke three of the squad’s four cars finished in the top five, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan fourth and fifth following Hamlin home as he scored the team’s first win in nearly a year. It was on course to be an even better day for the outfit with Carl Edwards also running within the top ten before he cut a tire and span to bring out the penultimate caution. He finished 17th, with 21 cars finishing the race on the lead lap.
The Sprint Cup calendar now takes a week off for Easter, before returning to action with the first night race of the season at Texas Motor Speedway.