24 September 2012
Hamlin delivers with dominant display
Having worked his way diligently up from 20th position, it was Jimmie Johnson who perked up during this stage of the race and completed his move up toward the front, finally putting himself into a position to challenge Kyle Busch for second place on lap 164 - which he pulled off, remarkably easily. Almost immediately it was clear that Busch had a problem, and soon he was passed by Clint Bowyer, then Kasey Kahne. His engine was sounding sick and it was evident that the #18 was on life support, and crew chief Dave Rogers explained that it wasn't even worth brining the car in to try and effect repairs.
"Man, if it can happen this year, it's going to happen," he said. "Something went through the motor and knocked out a spark plug ... We pulled the plug out, and something had knocked the end of a plug off, because there were a lot of metal shavings in there. So I'm not sure if something broke in the motor and came up and hit the plug, or if we somehow passed debris through the air filter. But something, somehow got in the motor and knocked out a plug.
"It's one of those deals where we knew that if we came behind the pit wall to try to fix it, we were just going to lose a bunch of laps and a bunch of positions. So, we just stayed out there and rode it out," he explained. "Toyota does a great job for us, they'll bring it back to the shop and figure it out and make it better."
In the meantime the only remaining role Busch had to play in the afternoon's proceedings was to be on the receiving end of an almighty shove from old nemesis Kevin Harvick on lap 176, and then to slow up dramatically on lap 209 to allow Hamlin to catch him up to that he could use the back end of the #18 to suck off some debris on his own front grill that had been threatening to send the oil and water temperatures through the roof and blow the engine on the #11 as well. Once the debris was removed, Hamlin thanked his team mate by promptly putting him a lap down: by the end of the race Busch was left two laps off the pace and in 28th spot.
In the meantime, there had been a third caution of the afternoon on lap 178 - again for debris - which had enabled Brian Vickers to leap into the lead spot for the restart in the third of the MWR cars by being one of only takers for two-tyres only. Hamlin was alongside him for the green flag and promptly took his lead back, however, while Jimmie Johnson also eventually passed Vickers for second.
Vickers still held on to third place all the way through to the next round of green flag pit stops that started around lap 235. Vickers had to pay back the advantage he'd got in the earlier stop with a longer visit to pit road for four tyres this time, and when the stops had cycled through it was Hamlin leading from Bower, Johnson, Keselowski and Gordon as the Chase contenders continued to dominate proceedings.
With less than 30 laps to go and no cautions in nearly a 100 laps, Hamlin's lead was over five seconds and he must have thought that the race was a done deal - when the caution flags came out again on lap 272. Hamlin wasn't surprised, but he did sound exasperated as he sighed: "Really?" over the team radio. The timing just seemed too perfect, special-ordered by NASCAR to close up the field and make sure the TV audiences had a rousing finish to what had been, in truth, a fairly dull afternoon of racing for anyone who wasn't called Hamlin.
The TV cameras couldn't find the debris in question, but spectators at the track confirmed that it wasn't entirely 'phantom' - a spring rubber had found its way into the racing line, and that could slice a tyre open and cause a puncture if left unattended. Even so, it still felt like the sort of debris that would have been cheerfully overlooked in many other circumstances.
In any case, Hamlin the the rest of the top six stayed out of pit lane, and when the green flag came out it was clear that the pause hadn't taken any of the shine off the #11 car. He was away, gone, done. By the time that the chequered flag came out he was over two and a half seconds in front of Jimmie Johnson, who easily cruised home to second place.
Hamlin had delivered in that prediction; and in doing do, he'd also delivered the 100th Cup victory for Joe Gibbs Racing, something that his team owner was delighted by.
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