Denny Hamlin had mixed feelings with the decision made by his pit crew to stay out for track position instead of pitting for fresh tires on the restart with only five laps to go. The Joe Gibbs Racing FedEx Ground Toyota gambled for clean air up front and when the green waved, Hamlin dashed quickly from third to the lead and on to win the first race of the NASCAR Playoffs, the MyAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.
For a majority of the race, Hamlin was a lap down and struggled to get back on the lead lap, and did on lap 129 on a wave around after spinning out on lap two put him in the back of the field.
“This is a great day for us,” said a smiling and relieved Hamlin, driving with an ACL tear in his right knee. “We obviously came back from adversity and did a lot of great things throughout the day, with the exception of lap two. I tell you, it’s just amazing that we were able to come back from the way we were and do the things that we were able to do.
“I knew we had a really fast car. I didn’t think starting in the second row with old tires we were going to have a chance. But the opportunity came in turn one to make a move and we capitalized and our car took off.”
It was Hamlin’s first Chicago win, his second of the year and 16th of his career, insuring him a spot in the Contender Round of the Chase.
Runner-up Carl Edwards was one of the cars that hit the pits for fresh rubber and, like Hamlin, was at one time a lapped car and steadfastly mounted a charge to the front.
“My guys just do a great job on pit road, they really do,” said Edwards, now third in the points. “Darian [Grubb, crew chief] never loses his cool, ever. He played the game perfectly with pit strategy.
“Then at the end, truly, once we got into turn one on the final restart, I was like, ‘I got this thing’. I got better tires than all these guys. Kurt [Busch] was unbelievable on old tires. Then I thought, Denny is mine, he’s a sitting duck. He drove the wheels off of that thing and really hung on with those tires that he had. I was definitely surprised at Denny’s speed at the end and was really happy we got back up there.”
Reigning champion, Kevin Harvick, who finished 42nd, had the wretched luck on the lap 135 restart of having Joey Logano push Jimmie Johnson so forward that he had to dive underneath Harvick and when space ran out on the apron, the two collided and that eventually put him into the wall with a cut left rear tire. He was none too happy about it, either.
“I got a pretty good restart, and obviously, the 22 [Logano] and 48 got a good run, and I just held my line and the 48 just slammed into the side of my door,” Harvick said. “That was pretty much it.”
Johnson knowing there was nothing he could do about the car behind him had a simple explanation for the contact.
“He was pinning me down, and I’ve got to get back up on the track,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say that what he did is any different than other situations I’ve been in like that. When you’re in Kevin’s situation, you want to give that inside car a bad angle, so they’ve got to lift.
“I was fine with lifting, but I had to get back on the race track. So I worked my way back onto the track. I pulled down inside of him, and then we were door-to-door, as I moved back into the racing groove, that’s when we touched door-to-door, tire-to-tire.”
After the race, Johnson approached Harvick to talk about the mishap with Harvick physically expressing his emotion, putting a pointed finger into Johnson’s chest and shouting at the six-time champion, voicing his displeasure. After being held back by a staff member in Harvick’s organization, the two separated after the confrontation with Harvick leaving in his Chevrolet Suburban and Johnson heading back to his Lowe’s camp.
The top five finishers for the race were Hamlin, Edwards, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth.
Now that Hamlin has automatically advanced into the Contender round, driver Jamie McMurry is 13th in the standings, three points out. Paul Menard is four out followed closely by Clint Bowyer, six behind. Harvick is 22 points down.
The MyAFibRisk.com 400 had an average speed of 140.117 mph with all 42 cars running at the finish. The race was accompanied by six caution flags for 28 laps.
The next NASCAR Sprint Cup race goes to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the running of the Sylvania 300 on Sunday, September 27, at 1:30 p.m. EDT on NBCSN.