Late cautions doom Denny Hamlin in Sprint Cup title finale

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Once again, Denny Hamlin experienced championship heartbreak at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Four years after he lost the Sprint Cup title in the season finale to Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin battled hard but came up short with a seventh-place finish in today’s championship-deciding Ford Ecoboost 400.

For a while, it appeared that the Virginia native would be the one hoisting the Cup in the end. He was at the front of the field several times, and assumed the championship lead with 20 laps to go when he stayed on the track during a caution.

But two more yellows in the final 15 laps allowed Hamlin’s title rivals to catch up. With seven to go, Kevin Harvick took advantage of the four fresh tires that he got in the 20-to-go caution to take the race/title lead from Hamlin, and eventual runner-up Ryan Newman passed him for second before the final yellow came out with six laps left.

That set up the last restart with three to go, but Hamlin was unable to mount a challenge Harvick and Newman before fading out of the Top 5.

Afterwards, Hamlin was comforted by his crew, as well as basketball icon Michael Jordan, whose sponsors Hamlin through his Jordan Brand (credit to USA Today’s Jeff Gluck for the clip):

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Michael Jordan comforts buddy Denny Hamlin. #NASCAR

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His crew chief, Darian Grubb, took the blame after the call to leave Hamlin out did not work:

When he faced the press, Hamlin said the “last breaks” just didn’t go in his favor.

“I thought our car really came into its own as soon as it went dark, and I thought we had the best car, and we just struggled with restart speed,” he explained. “Kind of the theme of the year, just struggling with – we don’t have the all-out speed that those guys have, and with that, it put me in some tough spots on restarts.

“I gave up a position to Harvick there with 20-some laps to go, and Darian tried to make a call to make that back up and leave us out there on tires, and obviously we were sitting ducks as long as cautions kept coming. We were able to jump out and get the lead, you know, had a decent lead, and just the cautions didn’t go our way.”

Carrying a much looser demeanor than he did going into his last duel with Johnson for the 2010 title, Hamlin quickly moved into the Top 5 from eighth on the grid.

From there, he was able to stay in that bracket for the rest of the race with the help of a strong car and great pit work from his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing crew.

Hamlin had toiled with a relative lack of power compared to his Chase rivals, but tonight, it was clear that there were a few more ponies in his Toyota engine.

With that and his crew’s efforts in mind, Hamlin said that he was proud of what they were able to bring to Homestead and that he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“We brought a car that was capable of winning,” he said. “I just don’t know how to express it enough. Sometimes, breaks go your way, sometimes they don’t…There’s not much else we could have done with the strategy that we played with the cautions that came out.

“I think we overachieved greatly by being here, and we haven’t had the speed to compete for race wins all year, and we did today, on the race that really mattered. Just came up short.”

Perhaps filled with peace of mind that he and the 11 camp gave it everything they had, Hamlin posted the following statements on his Twitter page this evening:

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds