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.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”