By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
In the midst of an instant classic battle between Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr., Denny Hamlin snookered his way to finish second in Sunday’s First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
After taking out fan favorite Chase Elliott out of the race lead last year, Hamlin was introduced in front of his home state fans with loud jeers. 500 laps later, the jeers lessened after Logano’s bump on Truex that could’ve been disastrous for their championship aspirations.
As both were sliding, Hamlin charged his way by the out of control Truex to cross the line ahead of him for his second runner-up finish of the season.
“I knew they were going to get into each other,” Hamlin said. “They were leaning on each other pretty good there for a couple laps.
“It seemed like whoever was on the outside could kind of pinch the inside guy off. I knew it was coming, but I just hoped it would be a little more dramatic.”
While it’s Hamlin’s 10th top-five finish of 2018, the fourth straight to have accomplished this feat and ninth in 13 seasons, the 0.526-mile circuit may have been his last true opportunity of extending his win streak to 13.
Streak in mind, Hamlin knew this was his race to lose and wanted the victory so bad after leading 31 laps. Now, he’ll have to set his eyes on the final three races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign.
“I mean it’s as bad as I’ve wanted anything,” said a disappointing Hamlin, “We’ll look ahead. We’ve got three good race tracks ahead of us and we’ll see if we can get it done.”
Right out of the gate, the third place qualifier was among the early contenders as his No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry took the race lead away from pole sitter and playoff contender Kyle Busch more than once.
On Lap 116, Hamlin set the pace and showed he had the fastest car, pulling away from Busch to score the Stage 1 victory. However, his turn at the front ended during pit stops after exiting out in third and never regained the lead back.
The multi-time Martinsville winner was within grasping distance of catching Logano in the final laps of Stage 2, but denied by a few car lengths.
From there, short runs and knowing he’s not competing for a championship played a pivotal role in Hamlin’s race as it was simply battling for a win.
Consistently inside the top-five all race long, Hamlin was in good position once again to pounce on Logano in the closing laps. Due to Hamlin being faster, Busch had to intervene and let him attack Logano, hoping to follow suit.
Eventually, the strategy paid off for Hamlin, getting by Logano just before Jimmie Johnson got into the back of Clint Bowyer in Turn 3 to bring out the eighth and final caution of the race on Lap 458.
As the race was coming down to the wire, Hamlin’s bid of snapping a 43-race winless streak dwindled, running in fifth with 10 laps to go. This didn’t stop him from giving up without a fight, despite a hold up by both Busch and Brad Keselowski, Hamlin successfully passed both to set himself up for third.
“That hurt our track position,” said Hamlin on battling with Busch and Keselowski in the closing laps. “We just needed to be a tenth of a second closer to the lead. It just took too long to get around the 18 (Busch) and 2 (Keselowski) there with about 10 to go. We just couldn’t capitalize on those guys getting into each other.”
Coming to the white flag, a hard fought and clean racing by Truex to get by Logano worked, but Logano bumped Truex out of the way in Turn 3, resulting into beating and banging coming to the finish line.
Then from out of nowhere, the Chesterfield native wasn’t far behind, went low to avoid Truex and almost escaped Martinsville with the win. Instead, he lost by 0.107 seconds to Logano.
Hamlin felt his car was more suited for long runs, and it didn’t help that temperatures regress, making the track cooler and more accommodating on short runs.
“Great long run car. Mike (Wheeler, crew chief) and the team just did a great job of giving me a car that was exceptional on the long run,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, with the track cleaning up and it getting cooler and the short runs, it just didn’t suit our car well, but we made a great adjustment the last couple of stops and just got shuffled on some restarts trying to let our teammates in.”
Hamlin exits Sunday’s race 14 points behind Keselowski for 10th in points heading into Texas Motor Speedway for the AAA Texas 500 in Fort Worth Nov. 4, a track he swept both races in 2010 and has scored 12 top-10s in 25 starts.