Denny Hamlin ratcheted up the degree of difficulty Sunday in winning the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, overcame a pair of pit-road penalties to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at TMS for the third time.
Hamlin joins Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski as two-time winners this season as Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have accounted for all seven Cup wins this year.
His win was improbable because of mistakes both he and his pit crew made. He started sixth but missed the pits during his first attempt to stop. Coming around to make the stop he then ran out of fuel. He then was penalized when he finally made the stop for exiting the pits too fast.
Hamlin, who swept the Cup races at Texas in 2010, was able to bounce back quickly from those gaffes to win the second stage of the race. That celebration was short-lived as he had an uncontrolled tire during that stop under yellow. That penalty meant he restarted 20th for the final stage but was able to pick his way through the field and beat Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez on a day when top contenders had their troubles.
“I was just beating my head against the steering wheel thinking ‘Man we’re going to finish bad with a really fast car,’” said Hamlin, who took the lead when Austin Dillon pitted with 12 laps to go. “We just kept digging and [crew chief] Chris [Gabehart] kept encouraging us that we had a long way to go. We kept passing cars and passing cars. At some point we passed everyone for sure.”
While Hamlin was making up for his mistakes, the other favorite weren’t so fortunate.
Kyle Busch’s chance at sweeping the weekend ended when he got loose while leading the race with just under 60 laps to go. He saved the car once but hit the wall later and ended up 10th on a day he led a race-high 66 laps.
Mechanical problem’s early ended Keselowski’s chance at his third win of the season as he finished 36th and 55 laps down. A problem with the bracing underneath the hood doomed Joey Logano’s chance at winning as he wound up 17th and a lap down. Ryan Blaney also had a contending car, leading 45 laps, but an engine problem led to overheating and he finished 37th.
All those issues opened the door for Hamlin, who started the season with a win at the Daytona 500. He led three times Sunday for 45 laps in collecting his sixth top-10 finish of the year. Hamlin has been a threat every week but different miscues have cost him better finishes. That wasn’t the case Sunday.
“We’re doing a good job plugging away,” said Hamlin, who trails Busch for the point lead by eight. “I care about running good every single week. This year has been different than last four or five years. It seems like we have speed. With a little executing we could be easy leading the points. I really believe this team is not even close to where it’s going to be in two months. I’m pretty optimistic.”
As good as Busch was, Hamlin’s team felt like it had the car to beat Sunday even though Hamlin didn’t believe that was the case Sunday. But his team was able to overcome its pit miscues by also making smart decisions in the pit. The last stop was just for fuel only and once Hamlin got in clean air, other drivers knew they were in trouble.
“I wanted to catch him [Hamlin] bad,” said Bowyer, who finished 2.743 seconds behind Hamlin. “He just come out of the pits way too far ahead of me and there wasn’t much I could do about it. He got me out of the pits quite a bit there. We needed to be able to draft to be able to carry that speed. At the end of the day he was fast all weekend long.”
Hamlin’s win also capped another strong weekend for JGR. In addition to Busch’s 10th-place finish, Erik Jones led 30 laps and finished fourth and Martin Truex Jr. led 10 laps and finished 12th.
Gibbs knows it’s one thing for his team to have strong weeks like this. He also realizes the season is only seven weeks old.
“You get on a hot streak and we all know in pro sports the hardest thing is to stay up there,” Gibbs said. “Some of those other [teams] are knocking on the door. I think there were some teams today that had a chance but they made mistakes.”
Unlike Hamlin, they weren’t able to overcome theirs like he did.