Joe Gibbs Racing rebounded from the ignominy of their oil pan component violation on Friday to take first and third place at Michigan, with Denny Hamlin reigniting his season prospects by clinching his first win in 2011 and his 17th Cup career victory in 202 starts - which puts him into the Cup points top ten for the first time since Vegas.
"We were truly dominant one year ago in this race," said Hamlin after winning the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday afternoon. "But today we actually were a little worse. But we got a win. That's very uplifting for me, is to win when you don't necessarily have the best car all day, but you have the car good at the end when it really counts."
It took two lucky breaks with cautions to put Hamlin at the top, the first coming on lap 158 when an accident involving Juan Montoya and Andy Lally brought out yellows in the middle of a pit stop sequence, scrambling the running order and leaving Hamlin in the top four at the restart. Later on, the race had been looking to be coming down to the wire on marginal fuel calls when a clash between Hendrick Motorsports team mates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin ended up with the #88 in the wall from a cut tyre a few laps later. Earnhardt was furious at being demoted to 21st place by the incident.
"If the tables were turned, I'd have been smarter and given him plenty of room," said Dale. "He's older than me, been racing forever, he's forgot more stuff than I'll ever know. But still, I take better care of people [on the track] than that."
"It was an accident. We had an accident," said a bemused Martin, before heading off to explain the situation to Earnhardt after the race. "I had my front wheels cut and I let off the gas, and that's all I could do at that point ... It was my mistake."
Later, Dale was calmer and friendly relations were resumed. "I feel better," he said, adding that "Mark wouldn't lie to me." He went on: "He got tight off the corner – I had the same thing happen to me [earlier.] I can't tell when he's pushing... He was out of the gas, wasn't nothing he could do."
The incident allowed everyone to come in for a final fuel stop, and the #11 crew put Hamlin back out in the lead ahead of Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth with eight laps remaining. Not even a push from team mate Edwards could boost Kenseth past Hamlin in time for the chequered flag.
"I got a bad restart, and Carl pushed me back to clean air, which was real nice of him, and I got back to Denny, but I couldn't get around him," confirmed Kenseth.
Hamlin's JGR team mate Kyle Busch finished in third place despite reporting problems with chest pains and breathing difficulties. "I don't know what it was," he said. "Just a centre chest pain I had early in the race. It was really hard to breathe. Couldn't tell you what it was, I've never felt that before."
He was dosed with antacids and says he never seriously considered climbing out of the car and handing the #18 over to standby driver Scott Riggs. "It was just hard to breathe. I had to take real short breaths. Felt like I was running a 400-mile marathon, which essentially I was. But I felt like I was running on my feet instead of in a race car."
As for that notorious oil pan incident, it could yet come back to bite JGR, with penalties possibly following NASCAR's post-race review on Tuesday.
"For us, the oil pan thing ultimately was our responsibility to get – when it says things approved by NASCAR, every piece has to be approved by NASCAR," said Joe Gibbs. "When we got here, they didn't like it. I think they thought it was a different issue than it actually wound up being ... The reality of it is it was our fault for not bringing it to them and laying it out. It's a good lesson learned."
Let's hope it doesn't prove a costly one following the on-track success at Michigan.Full times and positions