Denny Hamlin made one of the better comebacks in recent history at Chicagoland Sunday afternoon. Causing the race’s first caution after making contact with AJ Allmendinger, Hamlin fell a lap down and was dead last less than five laps into the race. Two weeks after a torn ACL, it seemed last year’s “Final Four” participant was riding a recent run of bad luck straight out of the “tournament,” digging a deep hole outside the Chase bubble.
Instead, the only shovel Hamlin has to worry about is one where he gets to throw dirt on his 15 rivals. A surprising trip to Victory Lane, punching his ticket to round two was punctuated by the fact he led just nine laps, including the final five on old tires. It was part of a remarkable turnaround for Hamlin’s employer, Joe Gibbs Racing, who appeared to struggle most of the day only to post all four of its cars inside the top 10 by the finish.
Hamlin’s heroics deserve their fair share of credit. Dicing through the field with the 2015 rules package isn’t easy; passing has been difficult, even with a tire that fell off during long green-flag runs at Chicagoland. Restarts are their own art and Hamlin pulled off a beautiful move on the last one, darting to the inside and blowing by both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon to ride the beauty of clean air and clear sailing to the checkered flag. So why does the victory feel more hollow than it should? Why did a race that was above average by Chicagoland standards generate a 1.8 rating and limited buzz so far this week?
Those answers are easy. It’s accepting the changes in racing, as most longtime NASCAR fans have tried to do for years that wind up so hard.
Consider the way this race might have played out 15 years ago. Hamlin, after his spin with Allmendinger would line up on the inside line each restart. With the lead-lap cars single-file, he’d have to fight tooth and nail to get his lap back the hard way by fighting with the leader and other lap-down cars. If he was lucky, a “gentleman’s agreement” with a teammate would let him slip through but considering rivals like Martin Truex Jr. and Busch spent time up front he could just as easily been kept a lap down.
That’s if there would have been a caution to give Hamlin a chance to catch up. Following his spin, the race went green for 117 straight laps, nearly half of the 267-lap scheduled distance before NASCAR magically found debris on the backstretch. Years ago, the hint of metal there would have never caused a caution, especially on a straightaway where cars were unlikely to race inside that part of a groove. Just a few extra laps under green would have made a difference for Hamlin; at the time of that yellow, he was nearly two laps down and would have likely been passed by leader Kyle Busch in the near future.
Should Hamlin have been able to fight back onto the lead lap his pit strategy would have likely been different. NASCAR tires years ago fell off so quickly the choice of staying out on old rubber, like Hamlin did during the race’s final caution would have been impossible. Four tires would have won out so quick, blowing by the No. 11 car on the restart the JGR Toyota might not have even run inside the top 10.
Let’s compare that with what actually happened, the scenario all fans swallow these days for better or worse. Hamlin was one lap back when that “debris” was found on the backstretch; the safety car was shown on NBC but the piece of metal was never described, picked up on camera or specified by NASCAR. That means fans have no idea what changed the outcome of the race during a “postseason” (I.E. – special, everyone on top of their game) event.
Hamlin, catching the lucky break remained just one lap behind the leader. That’s when crew chief Dave Rogers made the smart move of keeping the No. 11 car out under caution, putting them in front of the leader and allowing them to take the wavearound. The rule, allowing the equivalent of extra “free passes” back onto the lead lap gave Hamlin a full 1.5 miles by simply choosing not to pit. Lining up at the tail end of the field, this gamble left him within sight of the leaders and back in contention to finish strong.
The strong strategy was cemented a few laps later when Austin Dillon wrecked, one of the few clear-cut reasons for a yellow flag all day. That meant Hamlin’s place on the lead lap was assured; he could come down pit road, take time and make adjustments to an already fast Fed Ex machine that could slice through traffic. A long green-flag run after that put Hamlin back on the cusp of a top-10 performance; yet another debris caution, occurring in the middle of green-flag stops boosted him up near the top five. One of seven drivers who didn’t pit, the weirdly-timed yellow left rivals a lap down and gave precious track position to Hamlin, Carl Edwards and others who simply stretched out their fuel mileage more than everybody else.
Headed back to green, Hamlin used double-file restarts to gain positions and remain in contention down the stretch. Still, the team wouldn’t have been in a winning spot had its driver darted down pit road during the final caution instead of failing to listen to commands in time.
“My spotter said come,” he explained after the race. “I was already kind of committed to not come. He said it so fast, I couldn’t process it quite fast enough. So I just thought we were screwed actually.”
However, screwed turned to successful almost instantly after a final restart where Hamlin started third. Gordon spun his tires in front of him, Kurt Busch didn’t get going and all of a sudden a bold three-wide move left the No. 11 out in front. The reality of aerodynamics with this rule package means Hamlin was virtually untouchable from there; no one was going to close the gap and break the dreaded “aero push” even with new tires. It’s a big win for Hamlin, his team and his Chase chances after being the forgotten JGR driver in a summer of big victories.
Yet it’s also a win defined by strategy, luck, a “botched” pit call and questionable NASCAR cautions that put the No. 11 in position to win the race. Not exactly the dashing drive to victory Dale Earnhardt had at Charlotte when he came back to win the Coca-Cola 600 from a lap down in the early ‘90s, is it? Or when Dale Jarrett nearly came back from multiple laps back to stage an improbable victory in the Brickyard 400?
No, Hamlin won fair and square, his team making the most of NASCAR’s rules. Don’t hate the player in this case; hate the game. Unfortunately, few people like the different way in which teams and drivers are forced to play it.