NASCAR: Hamlin wins race; Johnson wins Sprint Cup title
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin waited until the final 300 miles of the NASCAR season to have something go right. But the wait was worth it.
After missing four races earlier this year with a broken back and struggling through the worst season of his career, Hamlin’s car finally came alive in the final 200 laps to win Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Although he finished ninth and didn’t lead a single lap, Jimmie Johnson put the finishing touches on his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship in eight years.
While Hamlin’s run in the close laps of the racing season brought him some redemption, Johnson entire season seemed to be on cruise control. He only needed to finish in the top 23 Sunday to move within one championship of the record held by the sport’s top-two drivers – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
Hamlin’s goal at season-finale wasn’t nearly as big as Johnson’s, but it was just as important. The victory extended his streak of at least one victory a year to eight, but more than anything else it seemed to give him some semblance of hope for 2014.
“Is the year over yet? I wanted to keep that streak alive,” Hamlin said. “This is a heck of way to go out.
“It’s been a horrible year. There just wasn’t a lot of positives [this year]. I was going to be counting down the laps. You kind of conceded the fact we weren’t going to keep the streak going. But after that first run, I knew we had a car capable of winning.”
Kenseth wound up second by fending off Dale Earnhardt Jr. during a furious final 20-lap battle. Despite leading the most laps and finishing second, Kenseth still was 19 points short of catching Johnson.
“They seem to be able to raise the bar,” Kenseth said. “I would think the 10 races we put together [in the Chase for the Championship] would have won the championship in some of the other seasons. I thought we put together a really good 10 weeks. They just seem to raise the bar.”
Martin Truex Jr. was fourth in the race, followed by Clint Bowyer in fifth, Brad Keselowski in sixth, Kyle Busch in seventh, Joey Logano in eight, Johnson in ninth and Kevin Harvick in 10th.
Kenseth started on the pole and he led 144 of the first 167 laps. But that wasn’t enough to shake Johnson, who stayed inside the top 10 most of the race.
Johnson’s ride to a championship wasn’t without some drama. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon was slow coming up to speed in a restart with 74 laps to go, and that created a chain reaction behind him that left Johnson with a big dent in his left-front fender.
“I had contact from behind that pushed me into the 20 [Kenseth],” Johnson said. “It got us both out of control. I didn’t know what to think. It made the last 50 laps really interesting.”
Johnson dropped from eighth to 23rd after the bump, but he quickly got most of those spots back after his crew made repairs during a caution period 20 laps later.
As the late afternoon sun was replaced by darkness, Kenseth’s car lost its edge. That paved the way for Hamlin, who led for the first time with 200 laps to go.
He was 100 yards ahead at the finish line.
Hamlin’s team had been testing new engines and chassis components during a lot of the Chase, but crew chief Darian Grubb said they went back to a traditional package for the final race.
“For us, the last two months we started figuring things out as a race team,” Hamlin said. “We hit on something that was really, really good. All I could do was take pride in the small victories, knowing we were getting a little better each week.”
Hamlin said he now plans to get in the training room during the off-season to get ready for 2014. He also said he will rely on therapy, not surgery, to get his back ready for the new season.
“I appreciate this win more because you went through the bad times,” he said. “We were always able to win races each year. You take them for granted, it seems like. When you go for an entire year without winning, it makes you appreciate it. It does so much more for our confidence that we can go back to the top.”