Runnin' with the Night
The Texas Motor Speedway night time was the right time for Denny Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 car to spring to life and carry him to his eighth victory of the season and a 33-point Chase for the Sprint Cup standings lead over ninth-place race finisher Jimmie Johnson.
Hamlin seized the race lead on Lap 306 of 334 and saw a 1.7-second advantage over Matt Kenseth wiped clean with seven laps remaining when Patrick Carpentier's No. 26 spun at the exit of Turn 2 and brought out a caution flag. Hamlin restarted the race first on the outside groove, survived a frenzied exchange for the lead with Kenseth's No. 17 on the backstretch with two laps to go and held on for a 0.488-second victory.
Kenseth ended the race second, Mark Martin claimed third, Joey Logano took the checkered flag fourth and Greg Biffle, who led a race-best 223 laps, completed the top five.
Hamlin's late-heroics earned him a Texas season sweep and brought him his second victory in his past three starts. He has assembled five straight top-10 finishes and authored a total of 14 top-five and 18 top-10 performances this season.
"At the beginning of the race we were struggling. We were running 25th and I couldn't go anywhere. We kept working on it. Every stop we kept adjusting, adjusting and as soon as it went to night, our car just took off. That's why you can never look at qualifying and practice. Everyone looks into it, but I know what our car has," Hamlin said.
The performance played precisely to his methodic approach to the Chase.
"We knew this was a three-car race from here on out for the championship. Texas is a place where I won this spring and we finished second here last year (in the fall). It's been a good racetrack for me. I knew if I won this race I was going to end up with the points lead. My goal was to win this race, nothing else. I'd been patient through this Chase so far and told everyone that with three races to go, I was going to be more aggressive as long as I was still in the battle. That was as aggressive as I've been on restarts all year. I did what I had to do.
"We got a very timely win for our race team," Hamlin said.
Kenseth hunted down his first top-five and third top-10 finish in the past six events and owns six top-five and 13 top-10 finishes this season.
"We both just got a really good restart. Denny was getting all the air off me like he should. I'd do the same thing racing for the win. When we drove down into Turn 1 we were pretty much side by side and I got into the gas early trying to clear him. I was surprised I did and because I was going so fast early, I had to lift to get the car off the corner. When I did, the car just went straight and across the track. I couldn't hold it, so I had to let off the gas.
"We haven't been in contention for many if any wins this year. It feels good to be up there, but I sure would like to win. I've lost a lot of close ones here," Kenseth said.
Johnson plowed through a peculiar day in which his struggling No. 48 pit crew was replaced by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon's crew on Lap 200 after the No. 24 was damaged beyond repair during a Lap 191 dust-up with Jeff Burton's No. 31.
The crew shuffle helped Johnson click off faster pit stops during the closing race segments which helped him deliver his 15th top-five and 24th top-10 finish of the season.
"We had speed in the car, would work our way forward and had some issues on pit road. I feel terrible for my guys that we had to make a change there, but the No. 24 guys came in and did a great job. We gave away so much track position in the beginning and it was tough for us to get back to where we needed to.
"There at the end, we were coming along pretty well. The caution came at a time when we didn't need it and in front of me on the restart was the No. 16 (Biffle) missing first and second gear. A lot of guys pitted behind us. I was at the back of the guys that didn't take tires and slipped from there. Long day, but it is what it is. It's a team sport. We didn't do our job today but we'll come back next week to try again," Johnson said.
He will enter the Nov. 14 event at Phoenix International Raceway in an unfamiliar championship territory and motivated to close out the final two races on the season on strong competitive notes.
"The last four years we've been in different positions. I've lost plenty of championships in the past. This is racing, it doesn't come easy. You're not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend. I can promise you this, I'm trying as hard as I can and I know my team is. We're going to everything we can. Thirty-three back is not where we want to be, but we're going to work hard to get back on top," Johnson added.
Third-place Chase contender Kevin Harvick finished sixth after his No. 29 Richard Childress Racing car scraped the wall racing the final laps. He closed out the event with his 15th top-five and 24th top-10 finish of the season and sits 59 points behind Hamlin.
"It was actually a pretty mellow day. We had a good car. I didn't think we'd be anywhere in the hunt to tell you the truth after practice. The team did a great job getting the car ready. When it got dark, we just got really loose and we got in the wall, twice actually. The team fixed that and everything went as good as it could," Harvick said.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup continues at Phoenix International Raceway on Nov. 14. Race coverage begins at 2:00 p.m., on Motor Racing Network radio and Sirius XM Channel 128. ESPN coverage begins at 3:00 p.m.
Story by Mike Schmaltz