Sunday, September 9, 2012

Gibbs Garage: As Denny Hamlin leads 2012 Chase lineup, wild card hopes down the drain for Kyle Busch

Credit: Chris Graythen / Getty Images for NASCAR 
The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had a harrowing night in Richmond, with even Denny Hamlin feeling a little down immediately after the race.

“It’s a tough day all around for JGR,” Hamlin said, adding that he felt bad for his teammates who didn’t make the Chase.

Hamlin perked up in time to celebrate with the other 11 Chase contenders, amidst confetti and grins.

Denny Hamlin started seventh in the Federated Auto Parts 400 and took the lead by Lap 59. For the next 200-plus laps, Hamlin traded the lead back and forth with Dale Earnhardt Jr., with Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson leading a few laps in between.

When the sixth caution flew for raindrops, Hamlin stayed out to maintain track position in case the race ended. The showers ended quickly, so Hamlin pitted immediately, dropping back to 14th place. On new tires, he picked off positions, returning to the top five with 60 to go. In the end, Hamlin was running second, trying to save fuel, but couldn’t make it. After pitting for gas with eight to go, he finished 18th.

Overall, Hamlin displayed his usual dominance at his home track, leading five times for a race-high total of 202 laps.

Along with Jimmie Johnson, Hamlin is one of only two drivers to make the Chase every year since his rookie year in 2006. The hometown hero sits atop of the points standings with his four wins this season earning him the first seed in the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

When asked if lessons he learned back in 2010 would help him this year, Hamlin responded:

The 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers
Credit: Todd Warshaw / Getty Images
“Yeah, I mean, what took us out of the championship in 2010 really were a lot of different circumstances. I won't treat it any differently about the way I drive, things like that. I think I'll be a little bit more aggressive on restarts and not give up those one or two points when they really, really count. That will change, but for the most part I think I'll just be a lot more relaxed this time around. Obviously our stuff is really good right now, as good as it was in 2010.”

“What do you got to lose?" Hamlin added. ”We've never won a championship. We're going out there trying to win our first. You know, I'm going to race week-to-week, not think about a championship until I get to Homestead.”

Kyle Busch went into Richmond sitting 12th in points, in the second wild card spot. His record at the track boded well for a good finish: 4 wins and 12 top fives in 15 career Cup starts.

He rolled off 15th and cracked the top 10 early in the event and ran there until almost halfway. Busch lost a few spots and fought handling issues through a couple pit stops. When the race resumed after the red flag on Lap 156, Busch was not happy with his car. He drove the No. 18 back up to seventh position by almost the three-quarter mark, then the final caution came out for rain. As those raindrops fell, so did Busch’s Chase hopes.

First, Jeff Gordon, who had been a lap down, got the free pass when the last caution came out for rain. Busch, who was running seventh, stayed out with the leaders under that caution, thinking the rain would continue. But the sprinkles were short-lived. As a result, the race went back to green with the No. 18 on old tires and he dropped to 17th place. With 76 to go, Busch went a lap down. A short time later, he pitted under green for tires and a chassis adjustment, but was held up by a loose lugnut on the right rear.

With less than 50 laps to go, Samantha Busch tweeted what Busch fans were thinking: “P20 not in the wild card spot 2 laps down. Gonna take a miracle.” Unfortunately for the driver of the M&Ms Toyota, that miracle never came.

With 40 to go, there were only four cars on the lead lap, with Gordon running ninth and Busch in 18th, two laps down. But with about 25 to go, Gordon passed leader Clint Bowyer and got back on the lead lap again. He was able to move up from fourth to second, gaining enough points to clinch the second wild card spot. In a heartbreaking conclusion to a tension-filled night, Busch finished 16th and missed the Chase by one point. Only one point.

When they unloaded at Richmond, the No. 20 Home Depot team sat 18th in points with one win. Joey Logano qualified eighth, but an ill-handling car dashed his wild card hopes early in the race.

“As soon as we took the green, the car just wasn’t right,” Logano said. “It was really tight in the middle of the corner at first, but the longer the night went, it just kept getting tighter and tighter. We were throwing all kinds of changes at it, even huge changes that should have been making a big difference, and nothing was helping. I don’t know what was wrong with the car, but it was just horrible. I really hope the guys get it back to the shop and find something in the front was all out of whack. That is really the only explanation for as bad as we ran tonight.”

Logano went a lap down by Lap 120, pitted immediately for adjustments. The car was no better after the 52-minute red flag for a rain shower, and Logano continued to lose laps the rest of the night. He finished 30th and remains 18th in the points standings.

“Now that we don’t have to worry about making the Chase, I hope we can just go out there and compete for wins,” he said. “That is all we can do at this point.”

Points standings after Richmond:
Denny Hamlin – 1st seed in Chase
Kyle Busch – 13th (-1)
Joey Logano – 18th

Beth Bence Reinke writes "Gibbs Garage," Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup team recaps, for the 2012 season. Her Skirts and Scuffs column, “Faith on the Frontstretch,” explores the role of faith in motorsports. Beth is the author of Race Fans’ Devotions to Go, a devotional book geared toward female NASCAR fans. Follow Beth on Twitter at @bbreinke or reach her at


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