Chase drama galore with Hamlin winning, tempers flaring – ESPN

  • JOLIET, Ill. — The driver who delivered a verbal jab during the week left Chicagoland Speedway with a flat tire, a wrecked race car and one more jab Sunday night.

    Kevin Harvick showed typical driver frustration when it comes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Felt wronged by what he determined was an unjustified door-slam by Jimmie Johnson, Harvick jabbed Johnson in the chest in a private lot but in view of television cameras following the race.

    That was the heated emotional part of the 400, the opening race of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. That one jab, and Harvick being restrained, will provide the highlights from the event when talking about the tempers.

    And then there was the euphoric emotional part. That belonged to Denny Hamlin — one of those Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Harvick said he was going to “pound” during the Chase — who defied most of the racing odds to capture the victory.

    That is the way this new Chase goes. With three-race rounds that eliminate four drivers who score the fewest points every round, it’s part survival, part capitalizing on opportunity.

    Hamlin did both.

    Nursing a bad knee already, Hamlin spun on Lap 2 of the 267-lap affair. He dropped a lap down, and he had a goal in mind. And it wasn’t to stand in Victory Lane.

    “I was thinking seventh place,” Hamlin said. “A top-10 finish would be a good comeback for this kind of day.”

    He did better than that. Staying out on old tires with seven laps remaining, Hamlin restarted third. He still didn’t think he had a chance to win in the five-lap green-flag dash to the finish.

    But he got a great restart while Kurt Busch didn’t, and Hamlin led the final laps on the way to his victory with teammate Carl Edwards in second, Busch third, Ryan Newman fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth.

    “Honestly, I was very surprised to see us win it. … I just thought we were screwed actually [on the restart],” Hamlin said. “Starting on the second row with old tires, especially new tires right on the outside of you, I thought the only chance we have is to get three-wide entering Turn 1 and get some clean air.

    “It worked out that way.”

    With the win, Hamlin automatically advances to the second round of the Chase. Harvick, who finished 42nd, is 22 points on the outside looking in with races at New Hampshire and Dover remaining in this round. Jeff Gordon is on the bubble with Jamie McMurray three points behind, Paul Menard four, Clint Bowyer six and then Harvick with the deepest hole.

    “Whose bracket did it break today, if you had us going out in the first round?” Hamlin jousted in his postrace news conference.

    Hamlin had faith he would run well in the Chase as he had rattled off four top-5s in the seven weeks leading into NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. But someone else had more faith than him after Lap 2.

    “He had a fast race car, and he was trying to make something happen and got in the back of slower cars,” crew chief Dave Rogers said. “So I knew he had speed. I have a lot of faith in that driver. He can do some crazy things.”

    Hamlin doesn’t have to worry about anything for the next two weeks except not making his right knee with a torn anterior cruciate ligament worse. He can even spend time talking a little smack to his good friend Michael Jordan, who had texted him five days before Chicagoland.

    Hamlin says this was Jordan’s message: “I know you’re about to head into the playoffs. I just want you to know I’ve never admitted to anybody that anyone is better than me at anything my whole life. But if you win this race this weekend, I will admit that you’re a better driver than I am.”

    Obviously, Hamlin wants to capitalize on that opportunity just as he did in the race Sunday.

    While Hamlin capitalized on opportunity, others didn’t — mainly Busch, who was one of three drivers along with Jeff Gordon and Hamlin to stay out and not pit on a late-debris caution. Martin Truex Jr. restarted fourth thanks to a two-tire stop, and the rest of the field had four fresh tires for the five-lap shootout at the end.

    “History of this race shows the guy who wins the race stays out,” Busch crew chief Tony Gibson said. “Our car didn’t take off until 20, 30 laps on the tires. … It’s a risk. Denny beat us fair and square. So what it is is what it is.”

    All of the top-three finishers had trouble during the race. Hamlin had his spin, Edwards had an early speeding penalty on pit road and Busch slapped the wall after a flat tire.

    “You know in the Chase you’re going to have adversity,” Rogers said. “It’s going to strike. We’ve been talking about it, been trying to mentally prepare for it.”

    That is what Harvick’s team will have to do now.

    “You just have to go and do the best you can,” Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers said. “This Chase, the way it is, it can be taken away from you in a week.

    “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first week or last week, it’s one of them deals where that same thing could have happened at Homestead last year and we finished fourth in the points. It’s just the way it is.”

    That’s just the way NASCAR wants it. It wants unpredictability. It doesn’t want restart controversy — it had one time where it had to make a call Sunday, determining Jeff Gordon conducted a legal restart after review — but it wants controversy and intrigue.

    Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick provided it for them.

    “Everybody is a threat in this format,” Johnson said. “Everybody is. When it comes down to one race at the end of the year and who has momentum on their side, anybody is a threat. It is hard to pick anybody.”

    Maybe that’s why Hamlin wasn’t going to get into a war of words with anybody. Even Harvick.

    “We’re one race in,” Hamlin said. “It didn’t work out well for him today. “

    But it could still work out for Harvick. He knows how he can still deliver a knockout blow to the competition by the end of the Chase.

    “Win,” he said.

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