[ via NASCAR Wire Service - by Chris Knight ]
credit: Getty Images for NASCAR
In his 300th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start, Denny Hamlin overtook Kevin Harvick coming to the white flag to win the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
The 45th annual spring event at the 2.66-mile superspeedway finished under caution, as a multi-car incident initiated from behind the leaders as the white flag waived. As the final lap continued, debris sat on the frontstretch forcing NASCAR to throw the yellow and halt Hamlin’s challengers. The win awarded the 33-year old driver his first points paying triumph at a restrictor plate track and virtually ensured him a berth into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“We really just want to win races — regardless of what implications this means for the Chase,” said Hamlin. “It feels good to be back in victory lane in a points paying event anyway. Couldn’t do it without this FedEx team — my pit crew has done an awesome job. They picked me up no less than 10 spots every single week and they did it again today. It just strategically saw that things were getting a little heavy there in the middle part of the race and those guys got in a wreck and we were able to avoid that and just play our cards right there and make the right strategy. Just proud of our day today.”
Brian Scott earned his first career NSCS pole on Saturday, but never led a lap as Paul Menard, who started second grabbed the lead for the first five laps, before Danica Patrick in her roared from her seventh starting spot to lead for two laps, before Jeff Gordon anchored ahead on Lap eight, with Patrick surging back ahead leading for four laps, when 2012 NSCS champion Brad Keselowski claimed the point.
Keselowski’s time at the front would be short lived however, as he made contact with Patrick racing for the lead, sending his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford for a wild slide before coming back onto the track in Turn 1, yielding the first caution on Lap 15.
Menard would inherit the lead on the restart and hold the point until the Talladega shuffle began with himself, Landon Cassill, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson all exchanging time at the front through the second caution flag on Lap 51.
Kyle Busch led the field off pit lane and the field back to green, Joey Logano with help of the draft powered to the lead on Lap 54 and battled with Biffle and Johnson for the lead. Biffle would assume the lead on Lap 60 and cover the next 35 Laps at the front, until Edwards and McDowell briefly took over, but Biffle in his No. 16 3M Ford Fusion would fight back and lead the next 10 circuits, when the third caution flag waived on Lap 107 for debris on the backstretch.
Pit stops circulated with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Daytona 500 winner exiting first. The driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet would lead for four laps, but Trevor Bayne in the No. 21 Wood Bros. Racing entry muscled his way to the front leading six laps, before NASCAR’s most popular driver regained the lead on Lap 119.
With help from behind, Marcos Ambrose on Lap 135 utilized the high line to put himself in charge for the first time, but two laps later, the first “big one” broke out in Turn 4 when Brad Keselowski, who was six laps down spun in front of Bayne and set off a big crash that claimed himself, Bayne, Michael Annett, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Alex Bowman, Gordon, Cole Whitt, Menard, Scott, Gilliland, Johnson and Justin Allgaier.
Under the yellow, crucial pit stops occurred with Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose and Earnhardt Jr. guiding the field back to green. Biffle and Earnhardt Jr. would exchange the lead over the next 10 laps, until David Gilliland’s machine blew and laid down oil resulting in the fifth caution of the race.
While leading, Earnhardt Jr. decided to pit on Lap 152 and never contended again. Meanwhile, Biffle with one of his strongest runs of the year led the field back down to green ahead of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson, Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch.
Racing resumed with the race intensity picking up as Hamlin and Vickers shuffled Biffle from the top and swapped the lead for nine laps until Harvick reasserted himself with a huge pack of cars behind on Lap 168.
The second “big one” of the afternoon came on Lap 175 when Jimmie Johnson lost control of his automobile in turn four and collected Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Joey Logano, David Ragan, Reed Sorenson, Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell.
On the restart, Hamlin and Harvick put on a show utilizing help from their peers, exchanging control of the race for the next two laps, before Carl Edwards spun, collecting Ryan Newman and Cole Whitt to bring out the yellow yet again on Lap 184.
Hamlin, though with help from Biffle and Clint Bowyer would execute his move on leader Kevin Harvick on the restart. With Biffle and Bowyer in-toe, Hamlin came to the white flag, when a crash started from behind. The field remained under green, but when debris landed in the racing groove near the start-finish line, the eighth caution of the race was flown, immediately freezing the field and earning Hamlin his 24th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory.
“I’ve got tons of exhibition wins on superspeedways, but none with points. I like it,” offered Hamlin.
Biffle, who notched his best finish of the year talked about his second top-five of 2014.
“The last few restarts were actually really good for us,” said Biffle, who exits Talladega eighth in the championship standings. “That final restart Clint (Bowyer) gave us a huge, huge push and we had a huge run at the 11 car. I looked in the mirror and saw the smoke behind me and I wasn’t really sure whether the caution was gonna come out and I didn’t know what to do and I thought about making my move on the 11 right then because I had a huge run and I could have, and then probably off of two I could have passed him again – got beside him and sucked by him – but I just didn’t want to pass too early.
“I wish I had known we weren’t gonna race all the way back, but it was a good day for us. The car was really fast, a lot of speed, and I’m just happy to come out of here with a clean car.”
Behind Hamlin, Biffle and Bowyer was Vickers and A.J Allmendinger. Paul Menard was sixth, Harvick wound up seventh, Kasey Kahne was eighth, Larson ninth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. comprised the top-10.
Jeff Gordon, despite being winless continues to lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. Matt Kenseth is second (-3), ahead of Kyle Busch (-4), Earnhardt Jr. (-19) and Edwards (-19).
Next up for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is a trip to Kansas Speedway for the running of 5-hour Energy 400 on Saturday night, May 10.