The first NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup race is in the record books. Denny Hamlin has won the myAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway capping off a weekend that didn’t start out the way it was intended.
On Friday, the number eleven FedEx Ground Toyota hit the track for the first practice full of hope but unable to get out of its own way. Dave Rogers, Hamlin’s crew chief, made wholesale changes to the car prior to qualifying. Qualifying was canceled due to rain and his troubles in that one practice were magnified because the field was set by practice speeds. Denny Hamlin would have to start the race today 29th, the last of the Chase drivers.
Rogers said, “We did have a lot of adversity. You know in the Chase you’re going to have adversity, it’s going to strike. We’ve been talking about it, been trying to mentally prepare for it.”
In Saturday’s practices it was apparent that the team was able to fix whatever was wrong with the No. 11. Hamlin was the second fastest in the first practice and seventh fastest in the final practice. A great improvement but he still had his less than desirable starting position to contend with.
Indeed, his starting position became a problem right from the start. On lap two, the No. 47 AJ Allmendinger car got into the right front of Hamlin’s car, sending him for a spin. He was able to save it and not get hit by any other cars so there was little or no damage. He did go a lap down.
On lap 130 just after a restart on lap 128, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin used strategy to try and get their laps back by staying out and not pitting. This was a risky strategy given the lack of caution flags in the beginning of the race and record pace the leaders had been setting. That strategy paid off on lap 137 when Kevin Harvick hit the wall hard after cutting down a tire; this put both of them on the same pit strategy and tires with the other lead lap cars.
There was a caution flag with ten laps to go and Hamlin’s team had confusion whether to pit or not. He ended up staying out, what at the time looked like a disastrous move. Denny Hamlin restarted third and drove it like he stole it taking Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon three wide. It stuck and he held them off for the three laps even though he had older tires.
“It was ballsy, but I’d been stuck so many times three-wide in the middle. The front cars almost have a disadvantage to the back cars the way it all plays out.” Hamlin added “We got a great restart and I just held it wide open through (turns) one and two and it stuck. We were able to get in that clean air and take off.”
Denny Hamlin has tied Chicago Area Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen for 27th on the all-time wins list with 26 wins.
Carl Edwards finished second followed by Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth.
Denny Hamlin has now punched his ticket straight to the next round of the Chase, The Contender Round. The team can now use the next two races to continue to get better for the next two rounds.
Brian Berg Jr. is a NASCAR writer for BehindPitRow.com.
Feature Photo Credit: 312813 Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images