Denny Hamlin is the latest “wild card” to emerge victorious at NASCAR’s most unpredictable track.
Hamlin had earned just two Top-10 finishes in his first eight events of 2014, but today at Talladega Superspeedway, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver became the eighth driver so far to effectively clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by winning the Aaron’s 499 under caution.
Hamlin and Kevin Harvick had led the field to the green on the final restart with three laps left, but as the white flag was waving, jostling in the pack behind them led to Justin Allgaier getting spun out in the tri-oval.
A large piece of apparent bodywork from Allgaier’s car ended up landing in front of the start/finish line, causing NASCAR to throw the yellow as the field raced down the backstretch.
That sealed it for Hamlin, who earned his first career win at Talladega – and his first points race win on a restrictor-plate track – in his 300th career Sprint Cup start.
“We really just want to win races, regardless of the implications it [has] for the Chase,” said Hamlin, who won the exhibition Sprint Unlimited at Daytona that preceded his runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“It feels good to be back in Victory Lane in a points-paying event…My pit crew’s done an awesome job and picked me up spots every single week and they did again today.
“Strategically, we saw that things were getting heavy in the middle part of the race and those guys got in a wreck and we were able to avoid that, and just played our cards right. [Crew chief] Darian [Grubb] made the right strategy.”
The intensity cranked up a notch after a multi-car incident with 14 laps to go that had defending series champion Jimmie Johnson spin out and collect last spring’s Talladega winner, David Ragan, as well as Richmond winner Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, and Michael McDowell.
After Harvick used the pace car to get rid of trash that had stuck on his car’s grille under the subsequent caution, he and Hamlin were up front at the restart with eight laps to go.
But just two laps later, Carl Edwards (who had waved his hand out the window to indicate that his car was having a problem) spun upward into the path of Ryan Newman in Turn 1 to trigger another late yellow and set up the ultimately curtailed dash to the end.
Greg Biffle led a race-high 58 laps en route to a runner-up finish and his second Top-5 in the last three races. Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers gave Michael Waltrip Racing third and fourth in a solid day team-wise, and A.J. Allmendinger turned in an impressive fifth-place result.
Harvick faded to seventh behind Paul Menard, while Kasey Kahne, top rookie Kyle Larson, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. completed the Top 10.
Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave the ‘Dega Nation some thrills by leading at various points of the race, with Patrick becoming the first female driver ever to lead at Talladega
But ultimately, NASCAR’s most popular drivers were unable to escape the pack in the closing laps. Patrick wound up 22nd while Earnhardt finished 26th. They combined to lead 32 of the 188 laps (Earnhardt 26, Patrick 6).
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES AT TALLADEGA
Aaron’s 499 – Unofficial Results
1. Denny Hamlin, led 12 laps
2. Greg Biffle, led 58 laps
3. Clint Bowyer
4. Brian Vickers, led 6 laps
5. AJ Allmendinger
6. Paul Menard, led 10 laps
7. Kevin Harvick, led 15 laps
8. Kasey Kahne
9. Kyle Larson
10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
11. Landon Cassill, led 1 lap
12. Kyle Busch, led 1 lap
13. Aric Almirola
14. Casey Mears, led 3 laps
15. Austin Dillon
16. Michael Annett
17. Martin Truex Jr.
18. Ryan Newman, led 1 lap
19. Marcos Ambrose, led 3 laps
20. Josh Wise
21. Cole Whitt
22. Danica Patrick, led 6 laps
23. Jimmie Johnson, led 2 laps
24. Terry Labonte
25. Michael Waltrip
26. Dale Earnhardt Jr., led 26 laps
27. Justin Allgaier
28. Alex Bowman, Lap 187, Accident
29. Jamie McMurray, -1 lap
30. Carl Edwards, Lap 182, Accident, led 6 laps
31. Ryan Truex, Lap 182, Accident, -6 laps
32. Joey Logano, Lap 174, Accident, led 25 laps
33. Kurt Busch, Lap 174, Accident
34. Reed Sorenson, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
35. David Ragan, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
36. Michael McDowell, Lap 174, Accident, led 1 lap
37. Matt Kenseth, Lap 171, Running
38. Brad Keselowski, Lap 160, Running
39. Jeff Gordon, Lap 156, Running
40. David Gilliland, Lap 150, Engine
41. Trevor Bayne, Lap 136, Accident
42. Brian Scott, Lap 136, Accident
43. Tony Stewart, Lap 136, Accident