By Jeff Wolfe
Timing can mean everything and that’s especially true in auto racing. So when the sun broke through clouds late in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway, it couldn’t have come at a better time for Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin and the rest of the field had chased Martin Truex, Jr. for much of the race. But the sunshine and a loose-handling car for Truex after the final pit stop was enough to give Hamlin his second victory of the year and 19th of his career.
“Yeah, I mean, whether it was a coincidence or not, the car to the field was better once the sun came out,” Hamlin said. “I felt like our car lost a lot of grip when the sun came out, but I guess a lot of guys did when that happened.
“Really, I felt like all day I was behind the 56 (Truex) and his car looked so superior to the field. We just needed some kind of change, weather or adjustments or something to get where he was at, and we kind of got both of them.”
Hamlin made the winning pass with 30 laps to go and pulled away from Truex for a few laps. But Truex, looking for his first win since 2007 at Dover, did his best to return to Victory Lane. He got to within about a car length of Hamlin on the final laps, but couldn’t get close enough to make the pass.
“The car had been really good all day, we put the last set (of tires) on and I was wrecking loose for the first 20 laps of that last run, and Denny was able to get by me and once he did the race was over,” Truex said of his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. “The car got better longer in the run and I was able to get back to him, but I’d get three, four car lengths from him and pick up the aero push. Frustrating day, but good day overall, and it’s definitely a good step for us and in the right direction and we’ll come back next week and try to finish the deal.”
Truex showed his superiority for major stretches of the race. Starting on lap 47, he led for 44 laps, then starting on lap 97 he led for 80 more. He also led for 42 laps starting on lap 181 of the 267-lap event on the 1.5-mile oval. Overall, there were 14 lead changes among nine drivers. Truex just wishes there would have been one less, or maybe one more, lead change.
“You know, as disappointed as I am with this second-place, this is a big day for us as a team. Its kind of a statement for us that we’re here for the long haul,” Truex said. “We’re here for the rest of the season. This isn’t — we’re not just a flash in the pan. We’ve been solid each week, and I know our wins are going to come. We just need to keep running like we are.”
Hamlin joined Tony Stewart as the first two drivers to win two races this season. Hamlin also won at Phoenix in the second race of the season, and his late charge at Kansas mirrored that victory in at least some ways.
“Yeah, it felt a lot like Phoenix in the sense of we kind of hung around in the top-5 all day, and at the end we just kind of make our charge, make our run, and there were some things that had to happen the last run really for us to work out, and those things happened,” Hamlin said. “We got our car a little bit better and it looked like the 56 struggled a little bit more than what he had previous.
“So I knew with the second to last run when we were able to maintain with them and even gain on them right before we pitted that we were going to have — it was going to be a close battle at the end, and when we came out from that green flag pit stop and we were side by side, I knew that that was pretty much the race for the win.”
The top-10 was dominated by NASCAR’s more elite teams. Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson was third, Roush Fenway’s Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle were fourth and fifth, Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick was sixth, Hendrick’s Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne were seventh and eighth, Roush Fenway’s Carl Edwards was ninth and Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch was 10th.
Much like last week at Texas, this race was filled with long green flag runs. There were just three caution flags for 18 laps, one for Clint Bowyer’s spin on lap 53 and two others for debris, the final one on laps 188 through 192.
There were also a number of milestones at work in this race. Hendrick Motorsports is still looking for its 200th Sprint Cup victory and Earnhardt, Jr.’s winless streak stretched to 137. However, Hamlin’s victory did give the No. 11 199 career wins, the most in Sprint Cup history, beating out the famous No. 43 (Richard Petty has 195 of those wins, while Bobby Hamilton has two and John Andretti one).
But Hamlin was happy just to get one more win Sunday.
“You know, at the end it’s a no-lose situation for myself because I’m a fan of Martin’s, I’m a fan of Michael Waltrip, and they’ve really done some great things with that program,” Hamlin said. “But, my job is to win for my guys and really drive as hard as I can to get them those wins because they’re so hard to come by now that you have to just do everything you can. And I knew that he was driving his heart out as well as I was driving mine.”
The next Sprint Cup race of the season is Saturday night in Richmond. Coverage starts with pre-race at 7:00pm EDT on FOX.
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