Monday, September 17, 2012

Gibbs Garage: Late-race fuel error costly for Denny Hamlin at Chicagoland

Photo credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs  
Sunday’s Geico 400 marked the 250th career Sprint Cup start for Denny Hamlin. In addition to 21 wins in NASCAR’s highest series, Hamlin boasts top-10 finishes in almost half of his career Cup races: 124 top 10s in 249 starts. He began the milestone event at Chicagoland sitting atop the Chase rankings, with four wins and 13 top 10s to his credit this season.

Hamlin rolled off the grid eighth, but dashed into the top five by the first lap. Taking only two tires on the first pit stop didn’t work out as well as the team hoped, but Hamlin managed to run in the top 10 most of the race. During the third caution he joined half of the field in taking the wavearound. The team went with four tires and added a little wedge on the next pit stop, hoping to tighten the car on entry.

As the race wound down, the FedEx Toyota continued to run in the top 10, managing to lead a lap before pitting with about 36 to go. But on the last stop, the crew didn’t get adequate fuel into the tank. Hamlin tried to conserve as he ran seventh for the last 20 laps, but the race stayed green, and the team chose not to pit. His efforts fell short and Hamlin ran out of gas on the final lap, coasting to a 16th place finish. The fuel blunder dropped him to fourth in the standings.

"This was just us making a big mistake with our fuel again,” Hamlin said. It's tough, but we're strong enough and fast enough this Chase that we can make up 15 points easily."

Coming off his runner-up finish for his own team in the Nationwide race, Kyle Busch qualified midpack for the Cup race. He cracked the top 10 around Lap 50. After a four-tire stop on the initial caution, Busch raced into the top five and stayed there much of the afternoon.

The third caution came out while the No. 18 car was making a green flag pit stop, but Busch kept it on the lead lap by taking only right-side tires. When the leaders pitted, he hit pit road again to get new left side tires, too. Overall, Busch was happy with his machine, radioing in that it was the best car he ever had at Chicagoland.

“The day started off really good. We were following the 24 (Jeff Gordon) up to the front. We had a strong Doublemint Camry. We didn’t want to make any changes to it early just to see where the track was going to go and then we started working on it -- just getting a little more grip and more side bite. Everything we did kind of helped -- there was one time that it didn’t help, but every other time it helped.“

Busch secured his seventh top-five finish of the season and said, “Just didn’t quite have enough for the top-three today, but we had a fourth-place car and we got a fourth-place effort out of it.”

Like Busch, Joey Logano had a good showing in Saturday’s NNS race. After leading 67 laps early on, a bad rear shock caused handling problems late in the event. Nevertheless, Logano finished ninth in his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Earlier in the week Logano commented on the upcoming Sprint Cup race, “I’m excited about Chicagoland. I think our 1.5-mile program has really gotten better this year and Jason (Ratcliffe, NSCS crew chief) and I are working better and better each and every week. Plus, the more we go back to these tracks the better we have notes to start with right from the beginning which makes us pretty fast right out of the box.”

The No. 20 Dollar General Toyota was indeed fast and qualified 10th for the Geico 400. With an average finish of only 18th in three career Cup starts at Chicagoland going into this race, Logano delivered his best performance to date at the track.

Several two-tire pit stops allowed him to grab track position and run within the top five spots most of the day. When the last round of green flag stops cycled through, Logano restarted ninth and picked off a couple more spots over the final 20 laps. He brought it home seventh for his ninth top-10 Cup finish of 2012.

Points standings after Chicago:
Denny Hamlin – 4th (-3); 15 points behind leader
Kyle Busch – 13th
Joey Logano – 18th
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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 bbreinke@skirtsandScuffs.com

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