Sunday’s Eliminator Round opener at Martinsville Speedway was an opportunity lost for Denny Hamlin.
Already a four-time winner there, Hamlin was in contention for victory yet again at the Paperclip. A strong mid-race run took him from 17th on a Lap 300 restart all the way to the front at Lap 359.
But things went pear-shaped for the Virginia native when a caution for debris came out with 82 laps to go. During the subsequent yellow-flag pit stops for the leaders, Hamlin lost three spots. He would never hold the point again.
Going into the final restart, Hamlin slipped further when three drivers opted to stay out while he chose to pit. He slotted in sixth for the restart, but couldn’t get going and dropped to eighth at the finish.
With that, Hamlin is on the bad side of the cutoff for advancement to the Sprint Cup Championship Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway – two points back of fourth-place Matt Kenseth and seven points behind leader and Martinsville runner-up Jeff Gordon.
“It’s hard because you’ve got guys that go laps down in the course of the race and get enough lucky dogs – and then 50 laps on their tires and they want to stay out,” a frustrated Hamlin said afterwards. “Just bottle necks the field up and we all got the short end of last restart stick again.
“Just sucked at the end and we can’t finish where we’re running. We’re running better than what we’re finishing. Other guys like (Ryan) Newman are finishing better than they’re running.
“That’s part of the deal. You’ve got to do it for all 500 laps and we just didn’t have a very good car once the track went shaded there and we came in first and came out fourth on a slow stop. I couldn’t recover from that.”
Hamlin’s Chase hopes are far from done, obviously, and the fact that a non-Chase competitor, Dale Earnhardt Jr., won on Sunday helps him.
But if Hamlin is unable to win either at Texas next weekend or Phoenix in a fortnight, those lost positions in the pits and on the final restart – and the points that go with them – may be what keeps him out of the final battle at Homestead.
“Eighth place just isn’t going to cut it,” he said. “I hate to be down on it because we did have a good solid day going, but it’s frustrating when you don’t get that good finish on that last restart.”