Hamlin Wins Chase Opener In Chicagoland

Denny Hamlin adds his name to the contender list after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 400 at Chicagoland Speedwa. [Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images]

Denny Hamlin adds his name to the contender list after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 400 at Chicagoland Speedway. [Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images]

It was a race of perseverance, changes of fortune and snap decisions; the stuff that Italian operas are made of. But this opera played out on the asphalt of the Chicagoland Speedway with Denny Hamlin as the hero, one or two villains (depending on whom you believe) and a cast led by Jeff Gordon who might still be trying to figure out what happened in the third act.

Hamlin, who survived a 29th-place starting spot, an early-race spin caused by a flat tire and a racer that just wasn’t quite right after that incident, took charge on a late-race restart to capture the first race of the 2015 Chase: the 400.

Most of the leaders opted for fresh tires on that restart with five laps remaining, but Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch liked their track position and stayed out, but only Hamlin enjoyed the most successful outcome.

“My crew chief, Dave Rogers, told me to make the decision (to come in for tires or not) but he thought that track position would be king and that I should stay out. My spotter told me to come in but he said it so fast I didn’t have time to process it. So I thought we were screwed actually,” he admitted. “I thought the only chance we had on the restart was to get three-wide entering turn one and get some clean air.”

And that plan, plus a slipping-sliding Jeff Gordon and a somewhat frustrated Kurt Busch were all that Hamlin needed to grab and hold a lead to the end; winning by 0.962 seconds over Gibbs teammate Carl Edwards. “Those were the fastest laps I ran all day.”

“That caution was a difference-maker today,” noted Busch, the 2004 champion who had led three times for 37 laps. “When the caution came out there at the end, I thought we had the right strategy, but we didn’t. This is a long journey through the next 10 weeks.”

And as for fan-favorite Gordon, the soon-to-be-retired four-time series champ conceded that worn Goodyear’s could be a problem.

“I knew we were going to have a tough time not spinning the tires. It’s pretty easy to do that, especially when you’re in the front row on the restart,” said the veteran who fell to 14th after working to hold off Busch and Hamlin. “It was over at that point; just tried to save this awesome race car.”

Joe Gibb’s Racing’s Toyotas have dominated races recently, winning seven of the last ten, and today was no different as Hamlin won, Carl Edwards was second, Matt Kenseth fifth and Kyle Busch an unlikely ninth.

But the script was slightly different this time as the quartet struggled a bit early, but came on strong at the end.

Edwards fought an engine problem and went a lap down after he was penalized for speeding in the pits. And, oh yea, he ran out of gas on another stop. ‘We knew if maybe we got our lap back, get back up there, we’d be alright.”

Kenseth claims he had a 15th-place car, but a strong move on the last restart proved a success. “We barely hung onto the lead (group) all day. We got into the right line on the restart when everybody got bottled up. I think I passed seven or eight of them in the first corner; another two or three the next set of corners. Somehow we finished fifth; better than we deserved.”

And the other Busch brother, Kyle, had led 121 laps during the first half, but fell off the leaders pace late in the race and dropped to ninth during the mad restart scramble that proved good for some Gibbs drivers but a problem for the younger Busch.

The opera’s villain, Kevin Harvick, felt he had been wronged after running near the front early-on. But a brush with six-time champion Jimmie Johnson after a lap 135 restart gave him a flat tire that sent the 2014 champion’s Stewart-Haas Chevrolet hard into the turn three barrier three laps later. “I got a fairly good restart. I saw those guys (Johnson and Joey Logano) coming on the apron. They must have gotten together and had a good run up. I held my ground and he (Johnson) just slammed into the side of the door like I wasn’t even there.” Harvick finished 42nd and couldn’t make good on his promise earlier in the week to “pound” the Gibbs cars.

Johnson’s version was naturally different: “He didn’t leave me any space. He was pinning me down, and I had to get back on the track.” Harvick saw it differently, of course, and an angry confrontation with Johnson after the race was captured on national TV as the two had to be separated by security.

Ryan Newman scrambled to fourth during the final restart and Logano followed him into sixth.

After the race Hamlin was asked what he was hoping for out of the rest of the day after his early race troubles: “My car actually wasn’t quite as good after we spun as it was before. When we blew a tire it messed up my brakes and I think it hurt the splitter as well,” said Hamlin who was also struggling with a leg injury he suffered while playing basketball. “If we could get back to seventh it would be an amazing comeback day for us. We were one lap down for most of the race. Once we got back to the lead lap I thought I didn’t know if we could battle for the win…honestly, I was surprised to see us win. That’s all we had.

“I can tell you that things worked out for us, and obviously this is the momentum we need to continue on.”

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