Pit stop, late restart causes Denny Hamlin to fade at Martinsville

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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.”

Santino Ferrucci will drive No. 14 for AJ Foyt Racing full time in 2023 IndyCar season

Santino Ferrucci AJ Foyt
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Santino Ferrucci will return to full-time racing in the NTT IndyCar Series next season, joining AJ Foyt Racing.

Ferrucci had made eight IndyCar starts with three teams since his last full-time season in 2020 while also racing part time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year.

He will drive the storied No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet for four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt’s team, which will field the car from its Waller, Texas headquarters.

“It’s incredibly exciting to be back in the INDYCAR Series full time,” Ferrucci said in a team release. “Being a part-time driver over the last two years has been hard for me, personally. I’m a race car driver, and I want to compete. Working with different teams has been exciting, and I’m proud that no matter which car I’ve raced, I’ve always shown speed and consistency. I couldn’t be more excited to join AJ Foyt Racing in the 14 Chevy. I can’t wait to make the best of it.”

Ferrucci, 24, had finished a career-best fourth in IndyCar four times, including the 104th Indy 500 in 2020. He was the 2019 Indy 500 rookie of the year with a sixth.

In nine Xfinity starts since 2021, Ferrucci has a career-best finish of 13th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I am thrilled to welcome Santino to the team,” Larry Foyt said in a release. “He’s shown a knack for getting toward the front of the field, and I think he is a racer who moves forward on race day. A.J. sees the fire in him and has enjoyed their meetings together. I think Santino’s experience will help his rookie teammate as well, so he is a great addition to our roster.”

Ferrucci will be teamed at AJ Foyt Racing with Benjamin Pedersen, who finished fifth in the 2022 Indy Lights standings. The team has yet to specify the number for Pedersen’s entry, which will be fielded out of its Indianapolis race shop.

Foyt’s two full-time drivers last season were Dalton Kellett and Kyle Kirkwood, who is moving to Andretti Autosport.