Denny Hamlin’s solid Daytona Speedweeks – a win in the Sprint Unlimited, a win in the Budweiser Duels, and a runner-up in the Daytona 500 – had many observers believing the Joe Gibbs Racing driver could keep it up at Phoenix, a place that has been good to him in recent years.
But instead, Hamlin’s struggles on restarts plagued him late during Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 and the Virginia native faded to a 19th-place result after running in the Top 10 with around 60 laps to go.
Altogether, it was a so-so day for JGR, who was led by Kyle Busch (pictured) in ninth and had Matt Kenseth finish 12th in his return to PIR following the fall 2013 race that effectively finished his championship hopes.
Bearing a colorful Skittles livery on his car, the “rainbow-powered” Busch was one of many that were unable to hang on speed-wise to the likes of winner Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the Team Penske tandem of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
“[We] just didn’t have the speed that we were looking for, especially getting off the corner,” Busch said afterwards. “[Crew chief] Dave [Rogers] and the guys made the car better during the day, but we just didn’t have the handle to run with the leaders.
“We had a seventh to 10th-place car today and brought it home in ninth. Looking forward to Vegas next weekend.”
Rogers himself echoed his driver’s comments, saying that Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team “put on a clinic” in Sunday’s event.
“We just didn’t have the speed to run with them,” he said. “We just couldn’t get our car balanced as well as they could.”
Kenseth was looking good for a Top-10 finish after making a green-flag stop with 71 laps remaining, but a few laps later, the caution came out and he was put a lap down.
He would get the wave-around to return to the lead lap but was 14th on the restart with 61 laps to go. In the remaining laps, Kenseth could only do so much.
“We had everything going okay and looked like we were maybe going to sneak out a fifth or sixth or seventh – somewhere in there – then the caution fell right after we pitted and put us a lap down,” he said.
“We [got the free pass] and then we were in traffic the rest of the day. I just couldn’t negotiate traffic. My car would be so aero-tight, I couldn’t really do anything. Just couldn’t really go forward.”
The scene now shifts to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Kenseth is the defending champion. Kenseth claimed four of his seven wins last season on 1.5-mile tracks such as LVMS.