Denny Hamlin outlasts Kenseth, Dale Jr. for Homestead win

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After enduring a season from Hell, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin finally found a bit of Heaven in tonight’s Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin took the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. with 24 laps to go and went on to win the Ford Ecoboost 400 by eight-tenths of a second over teammate Matt Kenseth, who came up 19 points short of ninth-place finisher Jimmie Johnson in the 2013 Sprint Cup championship.

That title was something Hamlin was expecting to contend for at the beginning of the season, but a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway in March left him with a compression fracture in his back that forced him out of the next four races before he returned to start his No. 11 JGR Toyota at Talladega in May.

Hamlin then strung together finishes of second and fourth in his first two full races back from the injury, but then hit a very rough patch as he could only muster one Top-10 finish in the next 18 events.

However, the Virginia native closed strong with three Top-10s in the four races before his breakthrough tonight at Homestead. With the triumph, Hamlin has now won at least one race in eight consecutive seasons.

“Man, I wanted to keep that streak alive,” Hamlin told ESPN in Victory Lane. “The whole FedEx team has stuck with us…They said I won a 25-foot Contender boat, so that’s awesome. It’s just a heck of a way to go out.”

As for Kenseth, he raced valiantly on Sunday, pacing a race-high 144 laps and surviving a stack-up with 74 laps to go that almost ruined both his day and Johnson’s.

The 2003 Cup champion fell back several spots after the incident, but fought back to fourth by the final restart with 28 laps to go and then took down a game Dale Earnhardt Jr. for second in the closing moments.

While he was unable to overtake Johnson and win a second Cup crown, Kenseth was still thrilled with his season altogether, which saw him and the No. 20 JGR squad win a series-high seven times.

“It was just an unbelievable year for us,” Kenseth said. “Obviously, we wanted to finish it off and win the championship as good as we ran all year. But I couldn’t be more proud of the whole Dollar General/Home Depot team. They did a spectacular job all season, all day today. I’m super-happy for Denny to get his win here tonight. He really needed that. Denny and Kyle [Busch] are awesome teammates, and I’m looking forward to getting into next season.”

“The day overall was really good for us – really dominant when the sun was out but when it got dark, we were off a little bit and then had the mishap on that restart that kind of got us behind. But, overall, I don’t think you could ask for much more.”

Earnhardt finished third to complete a fine Chase for him that saw him collect five Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes. With the result, he secured fifth place in the championship standings behind Johnson, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

In his final race with Michael Waltrip Racing before moving to Furniture Row Racing in 2014, Martin Truex Jr. capitalized on his strong practice pace to finish fourth ahead of his now-former teammate, Clint Bowyer, in fifth.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

Photo: IndyCar
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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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