Hamlin cruises along to another late surge
Posted: Monday, April 23, 2012 7:00 pm
By DAVE SKRETTA
AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — It seemed as if Denny Hamlin was out for a Sunday afternoon drive at Kansas Speedway, hanging around the leaders most of the day but never really giving anybody too much reason to worry.
Turned out that Hamlin was playing possum, just as he did at Phoenix earlier this year.
His team kept making slight adjustments on every stop and had his Toyota dialed in late in the race when Hamlin charged past Martin Truex Jr. for the lead. He then held off Truex’s last-ditch move with two laps remaining to win for the second time this season.
“It felt a lot like Phoenix in the sense of we kind of hung around the top five all day,” said Hamlin, whose best finish at Kansas had been third last year.
“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.”
The victory gave his Joe Gibbs Racing team some momentum heading to Richmond, where the Virginia driver has won twice before — and where he certainly won’t sneak up on anybody.
“We’ve had good cars, we got the win at Phoenix, and we’ve had consistent good performances,” crew chief Darian Grubb said. “All these details are starting to add up.”
Jimmie Johnson was third for Hendrick Motorsports, which has failed in 14 tries to win the team’s milestone 200th race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne also finished in the top 10.
“I was just watching from the third spot, hoping those guys would give me an opportunity,” Johnson said.
“I just wish I was closer to those guys to race for it.”
Long green-flag runs on Sunday gave Hamlin the chance to sit back and watch as the race unfolded, never pressing for the lead until it mattered. When that happened, his team had made enough right decisions that he powered to the front as the sun finally broke through.
“They didn’t panic,” team owner J.D. Gibbs said. “They paced themselves, and I’m glad the sun stayed out a little at the end.”
Truex dominated most of the afternoon, leading a race-high 173 laps, but had to settle for second place. It was his third top-five finish of the season, but he’s yet to win in 175 races.
“Sorry guys, I lost this one for you,” a despondent Truex radioed to his team.
“Hey man, you did a great job,” came the reply. “They know we were here.”
Truex said his final set of tires cost him. He was the loosest he’d been all race, and that allowed Hamlin to charge into the lead. Truex rallied within a car length, but he couldn’t make a final move on the bottom side stick, allowing Hamlin to pull away.
“I guess if we can be this frustrated with second, it tells you how close we are as a team,” said Truex, who hasn’t won since Dover in 2007. “The race car was really good. I’m just not really sure what to think about that last set of tires. I was just wrecking-loose that last set.”
Truex called the performance a statement moment for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Hamlin is starting to have a statement season.
He won this year at Phoenix, started on the pole at California, and led 31 laps a couple weeks ago at Martinsville before finishing sixth. He was 12th last week at Texas.
“It’s hard to analyze your program by a one-week performance,” he said. “There are always areas that we need to work in. We feel like we’ve identified those areas and we’ve gone to work on them. So right now I feel like we’re bringing better race cars to the track.”
Matt Kenseth finished fourth despite having a wild afternoon trying to get into the pits, often sliding across the line at the start of pit road. Greg Biffle followed up his victory last week at Texas with a fifth-place run, though he didn’t have the car to contend at Kansas.
“It was a tough day,” Biffle said. “We were back and forth all day, and we were off just a bit. When the track had a lot of grip the car was unbelievable.”
Kevin Harvick was sixth, followed by Earnhardt and Kahne, giving Hendrick Motorsports at least three cars in the top-10 for the second straight week.
Jeff Gordon had engine trouble late in the race and finished 21st.
The 14-race drought for Hendrick is its longest since going 15 races without a win during the 2002 and ’03 seasons. The streak began after Johnson’s win last October at Kansas.
“Everybody here needs a win for one reason or another,” Earnhardt said. “We’re all working really hard, but I’m not really focusing on homing in on that too heavily. You’ve got to think about what your car’s doing and what you need to do to help your car.
“Make your car faster, then the wins eventually take care of themselves.”
The pressure will continue to mount on the four-car team, though. And when Johnson was asked whether he’ll be relieved when someone gets the win, his reply came through unvarnished: “More than you could ever imagine,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 4.23.12