By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
Recently, road courses have not been kind to Denny Hamlin. In the last 12 road course races, Hamlin has had an average finish of 29.1. However, the weekend started promising after Hamlin qualified in sixth for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
Hamlin slid back to ninth after the first caution, but never fell out of the top ten. Hamlin then settled into the ninth position until the second caution waved on lap 46. On the restart, Hamlin worked his way into the lead.
Hamlin then led the next 33 laps, holding off charges from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and fellow Toyota Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. As Truex began to put pressure on Hamlin for the lead, the caution waved for debris. The caution benefitted Tony Stewart, who had just hit pit road for fresh tires.
Hamlin restarted in second, and attempted to take the lead from Stewart, while also holding off Truex. Hamlin lost the spot to Truex, but held station and never lost sight of the two leaders. As Truex and Hamlin began to put pressure on Stewart, the caution waved again, this time for the stranded car of Michael McDowell.
On the restart, Hamlin fought hard with Truex, staying side-by-side with him through several tight corners before finally giving way. However, Hamlin did not give up and continued to pressure Truex, eventually passing him in turn seven. The battle for second was not over however, as Hamlin got off track, and broke loose exiting turn 10. As the hard fought battle went on and on, Stewart opened up a comfortable two second lead on Hamlin with just seven laps to go.
A very determined Hamlin closed in on Stewart, slowly cutting into his lead corner after corner, and lap after lap. However, Stewart was making no mistakes, making opportunities for Hamlin to pounce few and far between. With three laps to go, Stewart went wide in turn four, allowing Hamlin to close.
Despite the slip, Stewart maintained his lead over Hamlin. A lap later, Stewart went through turn four without error, but wheel-hopped in turn seven, allowing Hamlin to close into his back bumper. The duo took the white flag with less than two car lengths of separation.
This time, Hamlin appeared to wheel-hop in turn seven, and tagged Stewart, forcing Stewart wide. Hamlin took the lead and appeared to pull away from his competitor in the esses. Then, as Hamlin entered turn 11 for the final time, his car went wide as it appeared to wheel-hop once again. This time Stewart pounced, moving to Hamlin’s right, and slamming into Hamlin’s car. Hamlin could only hold on as he slid off of the corner and tagged the wall. Hamlin recovered to hold off Joey Logano to take the runner-up position in the race.
A modestly disappointed Hamlin was able to crack a smile when he was asked about finishing in the runner-up position.
“I was looking in the rearview more than I was looking out front. I got in there, I didn’t wheel-hop or anything, I just slid up a little bit in the middle, and Tony just had a really good run on me,” Hamlin recalled. “Once he had the position, we weren’t going to drag race at that point. I knew he was going to put me in the wall. He was doing what he had to do, and we were trying to do what we needed to do. I hit him in turn seven, and all is fair in love and war.”
Hamlin also caught up with Stewart before he reached victory lane to congratulate his friend on the win, saying ‘how proud he was’ of Stewart. Hamlin now looks ahead to Daytona International Speedway, where he hopes to repeat his magic from earlier this year when he won the Daytona 500.