Hamlin raced to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory over the year, holding off Matt Kenseth on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. The drivers appeared headed for a fuel-mileage finish, then a late caution enabled them to make pit stops before a frantic closing five-lap sprint.
“Over these last six weeks, I can honestly say we’ve had a chance to win each and every race,” Hamlin said. “For me, if I go about eight weeks without winning, I’m wondering what the heck’s going on.”
Kenseth was the only driver with a shot to catch Hamlin in the final moments. Kenseth tried to go both above and below the leader, but was unable to pass Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin won by 0.281 seconds for his second straight victory in the June race at the track.
Kyle Busch was third, giving Joe Gibbs Racing two of the top three spots after the team was told to change oil pans before Friday’s practice. NASCAR said oil pans from cars driven by Hamlin, Busch and Joey Logano were not submitted for approval before opening day inspection.
The team could face additional penalties this week, but Hamlin and Busch hardly seemed distracted.
“It speaks volumes to the experience and resilience of this 11 car that you can start the week off with a down note and put that behind you and make sure that it doesn’t affect what’s getting ready to happen,” said Mike Ford, Hamlin’s crew chief. “This team usually comes out swinging when its back’s against the ropes. Sometimes we connect and sometimes we get dotted in the eye.”
Team president J.D. Gibbs said Friday’s situation was a good lesson.
“We want to be here with integrity,” Gibbs said. “We’ve made mistakes in the past as a team, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes in the future. If we can’t conduct ourselves in the right way, there’s no use in us doing this.”
Hamlin won eight times last year and contended for the series title but was unable to match Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin was winless this season, although he led early last weekend at Pocono Raceway before running into tire problems.
He entered this race 12th in the points standings but was still confident heading into the summer months. The victory moved him up to ninth.
“Realistically, you know if the whole world collapses and ends, you’re still one win away from getting a Chase spot, pretty much,” Hamlin said. “We know two wins pretty much puts you in. From here on out, we know we’re one win away.”
Busch finished the race without incident after he and Kevin Harvick came off probation. They were fined and disciplined for a run-in last month. Harvick finished 14th Sunday.
Busch drove despite chest pain and took the lead about midway through the 400-mile, 200-lap race.
“It was just hard to breathe. I had to take real short breaths,” he said. “Felt like I was running a 400-mile marathon, which essentially I was. But I felt like I was running on my feet instead of in a race car.”
Carl Edwards moved in front coming out of a caution that ended at lap 163, and it appeared the race would come down to who had enough fuel. The final caution, however, changed all that.
“I think I was going to run out of gas, so I was riding around half-throttle, which isn’t much fun,” Kenseth said. “Just running slow, hoping for a caution.”
Edwards, who won the Nationwide race Saturday, finished fifth. He remains atop the standings, 20 points ahead of Harvick.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 21st, three years after his most recent Cup victory, at Michigan. He has gone 108 races without a victory, and it was his car that hit the wall to cause the fifth and final caution.
Johnson, who entered the race second to Edwards in the standings, dropped three spots to fifth after a 27th-place finish. The defending series champion fell way behind Sunday after an early spin.
“Tough day,” he said. “We were just kind of in a hole at that point and couldn’t get caught back up.”
It was a frustrating day for Kurt Busch, who won his third straight Sprint Cup pole but fell out of contention and finished 11th.
“Our first lap was awesome. The last 199 were a challenge,” he said. “You need a good race car, solid pit stops and good changes to keep up with the track, and we were just too inconsistent today.”
Greg Biffle led for 68 laps, all during the first half of the race. He finished 15th.
Hamlin led for only eight laps, but that was enough for his 17th career victory.
“My goal is still to get in the top five in points,” Hamlin said. “If I wouldn’t have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we really could be possibly fighting for trying to lead the points going into the Chase, but we just started so far behind, it’s going to be tough to do that. My realistic goal is top five in points.”