By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Denny Hamlin’s bid of a fourth win of 2020 wasn’t meant to be as he came up short of capturing a sixth Pocono Raceway victory during Saturday’s Pocono Organics 325, leading 10 of 130 laps.
Hamlin made his front-running presence at the very end of the race after opting for a two-tire stop (right sides) over four which impacted then race leader Aric Almirola’s (who finished third) shot of winning his first non-superspeedway win. The strategy worked as Hamlin was slowly catching Kevin Harvick, who also went with two tires.
Before making his final stop with 34 laps to go, Hamlin expressed his concern of the inside lane being a burden, especially on the final restart 14 laps prior. A rough restart later, Hamlin knew had had to rally as he dropped from fifth to seventh while Harvick was running in second after restarting in eighth.
“We were in a box. I knew I was racing the 4 (Harvick) and the 18 (Kyle Busch) them going on that last restart. I didn’t get a good restart,” Hamlin admitted. “(Harvick) got around me and I was on the bottom. I knew that was going to be the race for the win. I knew I had to optimize lap time and I lost a spot after getting tight on one of the corners.
“That inside line was dead and you couldn’t go anywhere, so I just drew the wrong straw.”
A battle eventually spiced up with 10 laps to go, as the gap between Harvick and Hamlin was under a second, but would see-saw between under and over second for the next several laps.
At one point, it appeared over for Hamlin after dealing with the lapped car of Timmy Hill, but it didn’t slowed him down as he cut Harvick’s lead from 1.22 seconds with four laps remaining to 0.22 seconds two laps later.
Despite the last minute charge, Harvick was still able to hold off the five-time Pocono winner to get his first win at “The Tricky Triangle” by 0.761 seconds.
In the closing laps, Harvick knew that lapped traffic was critical, but also not making an error that would’ve led to Hamlin passing him.
“I had to clear them and had lost the lead catching the lapped cars on the entry in the corner. It hurt my momentum all the way down the straightaways. I tried breaking the draft a little bit,” said Harvick. “With him that close in my tire tracks, I knew that I just didn’t need to make a mistake. I just needed to hit my marks and he’d have a tough time.”
Hamlin ran the same line Harvick which wasn’t the bottom groove, the main thing he would’ve done different if he had a do-over as his laps were much quicker when running that line.
“I probably should’ve ran the bottom coming to the white flag. We were making some good time at the bottom, but I over thunk it and thought he was going to try to go down there and air block. I ended up running his line and messed up, but that’s about it,” said Hamlin.
“I thought I optimized my lap time that whole run. I think I ran him down 4-5 seconds on the same tire strategy on the same lap. Thought I could do it, but it just didn’t worked out,” Hamlin added.
In addition of not trying a different line, Hamlin commented that tires were concerning as he and fellow Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex, Jr. had vibration issues. Hamlin also believed it was an imbalance on the car since lug nuts wasn’t a problem following what crew chief Chris Gabehart calling him after the race.
“(Chris) asked me what was going on and did missed a shift (on the final restart) which was a little bit concerning. I think it’s a tire. I don’t think it’s a mechanical issue. Usually, when it vibrates that bad, it just break but hopefully they can check it out and see what they can find,” said Hamlin.
“If he called me, it wasn’t a tire because he didn’t see anything wrong with the tire. We only took two tires and (the vibration) started after that pit stop. It’s almost it threw a weight off or something.”
Once post-race inspection was complete, Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota Camry did have one loose lug nut, resulting in a monetary fine.
On a more momentous note, Saturday marked Hamlin’s third straight top-five finish and the eight of the season, leading all drivers after 14 races.
With one race down, there’s one more at Pocono as drivers are required to run the same exact car for Sunday’s Pocono 350 (4:00 p.m. EST on FS1). Hamlin will roll off 19th for the 140-lap race due to the top-20 inversion, hoping it’ll be a clean day performance wise knowing the outside line is the way to go.
“It’s going to play a role. You want to be there for sure. On the bottom, you’re the first lane that gets stuck three-wide. That’s going to slow you down. Everyone’s aligned at the wall on the top, so they’re getting momentum,” said Hamlin.
“The PJ1 has been moved down, so they’re sucking down on the door of the inside lane cars. It just a bad deal to be on the inside that’s for sure.”