After promising victory, Denny Hamlin has tough day at Martinsville

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On Friday, the beleaguered Denny Hamlin promised that he was going to add another Martinsville grandfather clock to his trophy case.

But in Sunday’s STP 500 at NASCAR’s oldest track, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was never a factor.

Hamlin, a four-time winner at Martinsville, struggled with ignition issues and on long green-flag runs all day. He finished 19th at the checkered flag – far from what he’d been hoping for.

Also not helping Hamlin and his No. 11 team was the lack of practice time this weekend. All of Saturday’s sessions were rained out at Martinsville, including two Sprint Cup practices.

“Setup-wise, we really could have used Saturday,” he said after the race. “[I was] thinking that as fast as we were on Friday that it probably would play into our advantage not having practice on Saturday, but there was a laundry list of things that we needed to try and didn’t get to do it.

“Obviously, this car and the setup that we had was really good for 10 laps, but it just goes away too much after that. We have to get to work, have to do some testing – it’s the only thing you can do to get better.”

Hamlin missed the previous week’s race at Fontana after struggling with vision problems that were caused by a piece of metal that was in his eye. After getting it removed, he qualified on the front row alongside pole sitter Kyle Busch on Friday.

Staying toward the front in the first quarter of the race, Hamlin started to fall back thanks to the aforementioned ignition problems (which he said occurred primarily in the turns).

He would return to the Top 10 by Lap 300 after the problems appeared to sort themselves out. But after hovering around the Top 10-15 going into the final 100 laps, he fell back again as a result of being on the outside line while other competitors got past him on the coveted inside line.

The outside line was no-man’s land for everyone in yesterday’s race, and Hamlin was no different as he faded to his final result.

“It was a mess for sure,” Hamlin said in reference to the high groove. “I got hung up a couple times and went from seventh to 20th just by getting out of line one time.

“It was treacherous, but at this point [with] as many marbles as there were, you would think that there would be rubber on the race track. These tires just aren’t laying anything down.”

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.