He had a bum knee and a lot of track position to make up, but somehow Denny Hamlin pulled off the win in his home state of Virginia. Overcoming a late-race pit stop with just four laps to go, Hamlin bullied his way from ninth to fourth when the caution was thrown and the field reset for a green-white-checkered finish. Successfully navigating through one of the wildest restarts in Martinsville history, the No. 11 Fed-Ex Toyota moved past Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon to score his third win in three years at Martinsville Speedway.
Leading six times for a total of 172 laps, Hamlin spent most of the afternoon battling for the top spot with Richard Childress Racing’s Jeff Burton. Once Burton had a tire issue with just 10 laps to go, it appeared Hamlin was sitting in the catbird seat. Then the unthinkable happened, Hamlin and teammate Kyle Busch (running second at the time) headed to pit road as most of the leaders stayed out.
Taking four tires, the No. 11 restarted the race from the ninth spot and set his sights on the front from the drop of the green flag with four laps to go. Making aggressive moves right off the bat, Hamlin jumped to the bottom making it three-wide as he moved to the fourth spot. Behind him, however, Busch was turned by Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard as the yellow flew to set up a green-white-checkered finish.
Lining up on the outside in the second row, if Hamlin was to have a shot at the grandfather clock he was going to have to get around Newman, Gordon and Kenseth. As it turned out, the three of them took care of each other and Hamlin was able to scoot underneath to take the checkered flag.
“I can’t believe it,” Hamlin said after climbing from his winning ride. “I thought it was the end for us. That’s for all the people that doubt us. We’re still going to get this thing done before the year is over with.”
On Friday, news broke Hamlin would undergo surgery on the ACL in his left knee, something he hoped to put off until the end of the season. The surgery was originally planned for Monday, but with rain postponing the event, the surgery has now been pushed back to Wednesday. Leading a race-high 172 laps, Hamlin’s performance showed that, despite the pain, he is focused on the bigger picture of making the Chase and contending for the title.
“Obviously with the points position that we were in, we needed to make up some points and get some bonus points for the Chase,” Hamlin said. “The No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) is going to be hard enough to beat on a level playing field in the Chase, or anyone for that matter. But you start to give them 80 more bonus points, 60 more bonus points going into it, that’s one bad race he gets for free. So you got to kind of manage that, make sure you stay close to him.”
While Hamlin was spraying fans with champagne, Gordon – who finished third – was left wondering what could have been. As the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet was rounding turn 4 to take the white flag, it was the yellow that flew instead. On a day in which numerous cars slowed against the wall after blowing tires with no caution, Gordon questioned NASCAR’s decision to throw the yellow for Busch’s late-race spin.
“It was pretty obvious to me NASCAR wanted to do a green-white-checkered finish,” Gordon said. “There were cars blowing tires, hitting the wall, they weren’t throwing the caution. One spins out, and they threw the caution in the blink of an eye. I think it was pretty obvious what they wanted.”
The four-time champion explained that while upset with the situation, there was no time to get frustrated as his focus now shifted to holding off the field for the GWC finish.
Taking the green flag, Gordon slid up into Newman, thanks in part to a bump from Kenseth. With an opening on the bottom Kenseth jumped to the lead as Hamlin darted underneath Newman to take the third spot. Going into the third turn Kenseth drove in too hot and – thanks to the bump earlier – Gordon gave him no room. The No. 17 shot up the track, killed Gordon’s momentum and allowed Hamlin and JGR teammate Joey Logano to slip past and take the white flag.
“I’m not exactly sure what happened on the restart, that last restart,” Gordon said. “I got an OK restart. Spun the tires a little bit, got going. I looked at my mirror, the No. 17 was pretty far behind me. Made sure I didn’t drive in too deep. Next thing I know, I got nailed. I don’t know who got into me. I thought it was the No. 17. If it wasn’t, I apologize to him. I made sure he didn’t win the race down the straightaway.”
Dropping from first to 18th, Kenseth admitted he got greedy on the final restart and paid the price.
“It was a dumb move on my part,” Kenseth said. “I should have just finished third and collected some points and got one of our best finishes at Martinsville, but I figured I’d go for the win, which, I guess in hindsight, was probably a mistake.” With Logano scoring the second-place finish, this marks the first time since Bristol in March, 2009 that Joe Gibbs Racing has finished 1-2 (it was Busch and Hamlin that day). After struggling out of the gate early in 2010, the performance by all three Gibbs cars marked a clear improvement.
“All of us want it bad,” Logano said. “We felt like a few races ago that Joe Gibbs Racing needs a little bit more to keep up with the Hendricks, RCR, that’s doing real good right now, need to find a little bit more. We’ve been having team meetings at the shop going over the last few weeks, ‘What do we need to improve on?’ I think us as a team is doing a better job at that stuff and after the race of having a better thorough meeting and all of us able to bounce ideas off each other.”
Newman was able to recover from the mix-up on the final restart to come home fourth as Martin Truex Jr. finished fifth. Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Johnson and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10.
Monday’s Goody’s Fast Pain Relief from the Martinsville Speedway saw 24 lead changes among eight different drivers and was slowed by the caution flag 13 times. The Sprint Cup Series will take the next week off to celebrate the Easter holiday and then it’s off to Phoenix International Raceway for the first night race of the year.