From the drop of the green flag on Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500, it was clear the race was going to be a battle between points leader Jimmie Johnson and fellow Chasers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon. However, in the end it was Virginia-native Denny Hamlin who was able to hold off Johnson on a green/white/checkered finish to score his third win of 2009 and second at the short track in his home state.
Not a major factor during the first hundred laps of Sunday’s race, Hamlin was one of the only cars to hit pit road under the fifth caution of the day on lap 158. Taking two tires and getting off sequence, Hamlin was able to get track position and take the lead for the first time on lap 183 once the leaders came in for service. Able to get back on sequence thanks to the 15 cautions on the day, Hamlin went on to lead three times for 206 laps and looked to make up for his second-place finish to Johnson in the spring.
A string of cautions at the end threatened to steal the win from Hamlin as the field bunched up for double-file restarts. With Johnson, Montoya and Gordon bunched up around him on each restart, Hamlin never let them get the advantage and was able to hold them off.
“I know all those guys are going to be aggressive and try and get a win,” Hamlin said. “We just had the best car there at the end. The [No.] 48 didn’t do anything that he shouldn’t have and made sure he protected his points lead. He gave us a little respect as well.”
Despite having strong cars the last two weeks, a self-inflicted wreck at Kansas and an engine issue in Charlotte resulted in two-straight DNFs. Those poor finishes dropped Hamlin to eleventh in the standings and out of contention for the title hunt.
“It’s a good bounce back,” Hamlin said after climbing from his car. “I’ve just got to thank all the fans sticking with me on Twitter and everyone, giving me some hope that the last two weeks were in the past.”
Coming home in second-place, Johnson extended his lead in the Chase to 118 over teammate Mark Martin. Leading five times for a total of 164 laps, Johnson had one of the strongest cars but did not have enough for Hamlin in the end.
“I just lacked a little bit of forward bite,” Johnson explained. “We had it turning, which is hard to make it do here. It was just a little too much. Denny [Hamlin] had the best car there on that last run, and maybe the two runs before that he had the best. I knew at the end of the race that No. 11 car was going to be there and was going to be strong. Congratulations to him. It was a great day for us. I wish we could have won, but second, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Having a car that was beat up in true short track fashion, Montoya held off a hard-charging Gordon to score a third-place finish. Racing very aggressively in the start of the race, Montoya was able to work his way from his 21st-place starting spot to the top 10 by lap 26. Also one of the strongest cars on the day, his early aggressiveness seemed to hurt his chances to win late in the race. With worn out brakes and battling an ill-handling car, Montoya’s potential win slipped away as Hamlin and Johnson decided it amongst themselves.
“We lost our balance there a little bit there right before the long run. We got it a little bit back but not all back,” Montoya said.
The hard racing with Gordon around the 100-lap mark ruffled the feathers of the four-time champion, who was none too happy with the driver of the No. 42. After Montoya bumped his way past Gordon for the fourth spot, Gordon keyed his radio saying, “He has the best car I’ve seen, but he doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Running in the top five for much of the first 150 laps, Gordon was mired in traffic when varying pit strategies allowed a number of cars to stay out on lap 178. Restarting 23rd, Gordon struggled to work through traffic and spent the rest of the race fighting his way back to the front. Charging hard during the last two runs of the day, Gordon made his way up to fourth late in the going, but lost a spot to Kyle Busch as the field came to the checkered flag.
“We got way behind at times and it didn’t look like we were going to make our way back to the front,” Gordon said. “But we needed more long runs and we finally got it and that long run is what got us back into in. We drove all the way back up to third or fourth. Real happy. Wish we could have won it. Wish we could have finished maybe one or two positions forward but we’ll take it.”
Coming home fourth was Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch. Although he has struggled at Martinsville in the last three races (he has finishes of 38th, 29th and 24th), Busch took advantage of a late-race pit stop and two fresh tires to score his first top-five at Martinsville since 2007.
“Tires were the name of the game,” Busch explained. “We just seemed to be on the right strategy when we could come get tires and drive back through some guys. We had a good enough car to do that with. Glad we came down there with like 15 or 18 to go, whatever it was, and put right sides (tires) on it because that probably gained us about eight spots today. Real proud of the effort.”
Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 saw twenty-one lead changes among twelve different drivers and was slowed 15 times by the yellow flag. With only four races left on the year, the series heads to the high-banks of Talladega next week for what many consider the ‘wild-card’ race of the Chase.