Starting on the pole, Denny Hamlin dropped like a rock in the opening laps of Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500, yet in the closing laps, Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota came to life and looked like it was being shot out of a cannon through the corners.
Taking the lead with 29 laps to go, Hamlin scored his seventh victory of the year – a career high – and his fourth at Martinsville. The victory also moves him within six points of the Chase lead headed to Talladega next week.
“Who said it was over?” Hamlin said pointing his finger at the media. “Told you it wasn’t over.”
Despite high hopes for the day, Hamlin’s day did not get off to a great start. The No. 11 quickly fell through the field on the initial green flag and was left wondering what had gone wrong.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” he said on the radio. “I have no idea why I can’t even touch the gas.”
Losing 15 spots in the first 45 laps, Hamlin was saved by the first caution of the day. Coming in 16th, the Mike Ford-led pit crew gained one spot on pit road, but more importantly changed the left rear tire on the car. The culprit for Hamlin’s quick fall through the field in the opening laps was too much build up on the left rear.
“I knew we couldn’t be that far off,” said Ford. “So I figured something was wrong with the car. Instead of making wholesale changes, we went a little bit more than what we typically would change hoping we saw something with a set of tires coming off. We certainly did. We saw a lot of buildup to the left rear, probably four times more than we normally see.”
With one of the strongest cars in the field, Hamlin went to work making up for lost ground. Restarting 15th on Lap 53, the No. 11 was inside the Top-5 in just over 50 laps.
With 50 laps to go, Hamlin trailed Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton. Turning the center better than the other two leaders, Hamlin was able to work through traffic to close the gap on the Harvick and Burton.
Taking the second spot from Burton on Lap 453, Hamlin’s car continued to work through the corners better than Harvick as they diced through lapped traffic. On Lap 467, Hamlin made his move to the inside of the No. 29 racing side-by-side for nearly four laps before Hamlin cleared him off Turn 4 on Lap 471.
As Harvick and Burton fell back, Hamlin’s car never fell off as he extended his lead and drove to the victory.
“I don’t think I’ve ever closed that well – ever,” Hamlin said in Victory Lane. “We kept working. We did not have a race-winning car all day until the very end.”
Despite wrecking on Lap 227 after contact with AJ Allmendinger, Mark Martin was able to rally at the end of Sunday’s 500-lap race to finish second with a beat up car. Scoring his best finish of the 2010 season, Martin was more than ecstatic with his result.
“With a hundred to go, we were 20th or something like that, 111 to go,” Martin said. “We drove to second. Why wouldn’t that be fun? I’m used to people passing me. I was passing good cars the way they usually do me here. I never could figure out how they did that. Now I know. When the car was working like mine was working today, that was really fun. We had a spectacular racecar at the end.”
The veteran driver explained the team made few changes on the car throughout the day, the difference was the track coming to them as the laps clicked away and the track became rubbered up.
Leading six times for 97 laps, Harvick finished a somewhat disappointing third place, but was pleased to score his first Top-5 at Martinsville and gain 15 points on Johnson in the Chase standings.
Starting from the 36th spot, Harvick had moved to second by Lap 145, chasing teammate Burton for the lead. The two battled for much of the afternoon, a battle that raised tempers between the teammates.
After Burton cut across Harvick’s nose following a restart on Lap 356, Harvick told crew chief Gil Martin, “I’m telling you Gil, he’s out of mulligans. He’s done it three times, Indy, Loudon and here.”
Under the next caution just laps after their incident, Harvick drove down into the side of the Burton’s No. 31.
Burton felt he had done nothing wrong in the situation, responding on his radio, “I have done nothing wrong and I will not tolerate it. The hole was there. I filled the hole.”
Following the race Harvick shrugged the incident off, saying, “We were just racing.”
Burton agreed it was just racing, but failed to understand why his teammate was so mad. Adding he was clear and would do it again given the chance, Burton summed it up as just short track racing at Martinsville.
“There will come a point when he realizes that everybody in the world is not against him,” Burton said. “And every time it’s a conflict he is involved. And you would think over the amount of years that he has done it, that he would get the hint that he is always in the middle of it and maybe sometimes if he just backed up a little bit and caught his breath, he would be okay. I’m not out to harm him. I am a teammate of his and I am trying to help him and there comes a point where he needs to just catch his breath and realize that it’s my racetrack too. And I didn’t do anything wrong. If he thinks I did anything wrong, then we can’t race and there is nothing that I did that I regret and there is nothing I won’t do next week.”
Leading the most laps on the day, 134, Burton struggled with a lack of rear grip and dropped through the pack in the closing laps to finish ninth.
Jeff Gordon’s day – and title hopes – took a turn for the worse when a slow pit stop on Lap 351 mired him mid-pack. Stuck in heavy traffic and battling hard with Kurt Busch for position, Gordon moved Busch out of the groove in Turns 3 and 4. Unhappy with the move, Busch got into the right rear of Gordon’s car, sending him sliding down the frontstretch and into the wall.
“We ran him down quite a bit, we were quite a bit faster than him,” Gordon said of the incident. “I dove inside of him in Turn 3 and I definitely over-shot it a little bit. Either he didn’t know I was there or whatever and cut down on me and I got into him. Kurt Busch doesn’t have a very long fuse so either it was payback, or he just got angry really quick and decided to wreck us.”
While the crew was able to make repairs and keep the No. 24 on the lead lap for the time being, Gordon’s day was never the same. Entering the day 156 points out of the Chase, Gordon’s 20th place finish drops him to fifth in the standings, now 203 points behind Johnson.
In Busch’s eyes, Gordon’s contact in the middle of the corner was uncalled for and part of a long string of incidents.
“[He] was on the outside lane on restarts and so yeah, he shoved me in there and I shoved him back in Turn 4,” Busch said. “I didn’t mean to get into him that hard, but over the years with [Jeff] Gordon here, back in the 97 [car], wrecking the 2 car, whether you’re a current Kurt fan or ex-Rusty [Wallace] fan, he’s wrecked the 2 car a lot here.”
Later in the race, the two came together again when Gordon ran up the track and into the side of the No. 2 car. While Gordon brushed it off as not knowing Busch was on his outside, Busch again, saw it differently.
“His chicken move afterward wasn’t called for, but that shows the game we’re gonna play,” he said. “One bump versus another bump, it still seems like the scorecard isn’t even.”
Sunday’s race was slowed by 15 caution flags and saw 24 lead changes among 12 different drivers. Points leader Jimmie Johnson was not among those that led Sunday’s race.
Next weekend the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the AMP Energy Juice 500, the “wild card” of the Chase. With the Top-3 drivers in the Chase separated by only 62 points, Sunday’s race could truly reshape the way the Chase plays out.