Phoenix not a Daytona downer for Denny
By JEFF WOLFE
After all the excitement and suspense involved in NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 last week, many might consider the Sprint Cup season’s second race a bit of downer.
After all, there were no lead changes in the final 52 laps.
But of course, no one involved with race-winner Denny Hamlin’s team was down after he won the 312-lap race at Phoenix International Raceway. And Hamlin certainly knows what it’s like to leave Phoenix on a bit of down note, having essentially lost the Chase for the Championship at the track with a late race pit strategy mistake in the fall of 2010 and not having a top-10 finish at the track in his last four races there. When the weekend started, Hamlin thought he might be in for more frustration at Phoenix.
“I mean, for me, I don’t know where this came from,” Hamlin said of the win in the post-race news conference. “I don’t know how our car was as good as it was today. We were solidly off in practice. We were off, but we kept getting it better and closer to being competitive. But, I had no idea we were going to fire off like we did today. “You know, it just seemed like we kept improving our car, and I think the turning point for us was that green flag pit stop. Whatever he (crew chief Darian Grubb) did to the car at that point was just lights-out after that.”
Hamlin’s last green flag pit stop came on lap 188, after he had taken the lead as the pit stops cycled through. He stayed in the top-5 after the stops and held station until Carl Edwards slid up the track and hit Ryan Newman in Turn 4. The resulting crash caused the eighth caution of the day with 55 laps remaining.
It was on that restart where Brad Keselowski had the inside line and tried to pull away to take the lead, but he appeared to enter the third turn a little hard, and slid up the track, leaving an open door that Hamlin gladly drove through.
“If you asked me at the beginning of today, I say we would have taken a top-15 finish,” Hamlin said. “This is huge momentum for us. I’ve never been in this position this early in the season. This is particularly not my type of track.”
That final two yellow flags weren’t the type of situations the Stewart-Haas cars needed. Newman’s crash damage required extensive repairs to get back into the action. He eventually finished two laps down in 21st after running in the top-10 most of the day. On the previous caution, Newman’s owner and teammate Tony Stewart also had bad fortune. With several drivers being close on fuel, Stewart decided to shut the car off to save gas, a common practice in such situations in NASCAR. However, when he went to start it back up, he was out of luck.
“I just shut the car off like I did at Daytona and I don’t know why it didn’t refire,” said Stewart, who eventually got restarted and finished two laps down in 22nd. “I just turned the switch back on and it never refired. It definitely cost us a good day.”
It appeared to be an electrical problem with the new fuel injection system that cost Stewart. Hamlin has credited Grubb, who led Stewart to the title in late season rally last year, for injecting some life into the No. 11 team after a disappointing 2011 season. But Grubb’s not the type to look back.
“I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication, but I really don’t think that way,” Grubb said. “I try to just think the high road all the time. I feel like I came into a very good situation.”
Second-place finisher Kevin Harvick appeared to be in a good situation to challenge Hamlin for the win late in the race. He gradually closed the gap and reached Hamlin’s bumper with two laps to go. But, that’s as far as he got. He ran out of gas with one lap to go, but had enough of a cushion to beat third-place finisher Greg Biffle to the line.
“Yeah, when you come out of a caution and they tell you you’re nine laps short, you really don’t think there’s any possibility to make it,” Harvick said. “But, a couple cautions and a little bit of saving and a little bit tighter crunch on the numbers, we wound up about a lap short.
“But those are the types of things you’ve got to do to take the chances, and when you’re close enough to at least coast around, they did a good job.”
Part of the job for fourth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson was to try and get back into the positive side of the point standings. The team was penalized 25 points and crew chief Chad Knaus was hit with a six-week suspension and $100,000 fine for a C-Pillar violation at Daytona. While that penalty is being appealed by Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson started the second race of the season 70 points behind series leader Matt Kenseth with -23 points. The fourth-place finish and bonus point for leading a lap gave him a 41-point day at Phoenix, giving him 18 points, good for 38th in the standings, but 71 behind new leader Hamlin.
“We were definitely concerned about fuel,” said Johnson, who led 55 laps. “We just tried to make sure we got some points today.”
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