The finish was Hamlin’s first of 2013 and his first in a Cup race since 2010, when he won the pole for the Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta, but lost the engine after he competed 143 laps. The 74 laps Hamlin led in that race were the second-most by any NASCAR Cup Series last-place finisher, trailing only the 95 led by Greg Biffle in the 2008 Dodge Challenger 500 at Darlington.
Since his first full Cup Series season in 2006, Hamlin has never once missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, and he has twice finished Top Three in the points. However, in 2013, he has endured what easily been the worst season of his career. He began the year with a 14th-place finish in the Daytona 500 followed by a hard-fought 3rd-place run at Phoenix. A scuffle with Joey Logano at Bristol left him 23rd, but he looked poised for victory the next week at Fontana. Unfortunately, he again tangled with Logano while battling for the lead on the final lap, resulting in a back injury that sidelined Hamlin for the next four races.
Hamlin started to climb back into contention with an inspiring runner-up finish at Darlington, followed by a 4th-place run in the equally-grueling Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but in the nine races since, he has finished inside the Top Ten just once - an 8th at Pocono. Mired well outside the Top Twenty in points heading back to the Tricky Triangle, Hamlin hoped for a good result at the track he swept as a rookie in 2006 and won two more times since.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.
Hamlin qualified 9th for Sunday’s race at an average speed 179.144 mph. This allowed him to miss the chaos of a grinding first-lap crash in Turn 1 when Juan Pablo Montoya slid into Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., sending both cars into the outside wall. Matt Kenseth received some damage to his fender in the melee, as did Joe Nemechek, who ran through the grass to avoid the wreck. Stenhouse suffered the most severe damage, and for several laps, he remained in the 43rd spot.
Then, on Lap 14, Hamlin’s ill-handling car suddenly broke loose entering Turn 3, sending his #11 hard into the outside wall. The car suffered significant damage to the right-front, nearly pulling the wheel underneath the car as it spun around. Although Hamlin was not injured in the wreck, the car turned out to be so badly damaged that it never returned to the track. Stenhouse returned to the track on Lap 48, then passed Hamlin for last on Lap 62.
Finishing 42nd on Sunday was Alex Kennedy, who was making his first Cup start since Sonoma in the #19 Plinker Tactical Toyota fielded by Humphrey-Smith Racing. Kennedy complained of a severe vibration in the rear of the car that required several trips to the garage area before he finally pulled behind the wall. Radio communications indicated Kennedy would again be in the car next week at Watkins Glen.
Josh Wise lost two laps early in the race, then ultimately fell out of the race along with Michael McDowell. Both didn’t fall into the Bottom Five until Lap 81, when the damaged Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Joe Nemechek finally passed them both. David Gilliland, one of at least four drivers to suffer a tire failure on Sunday, rounded out the Bottom Five after his hard crash on Lap 54.
*This was Hamlin’s first-ever last-place finish in a Cup race at Pocono. Its just the fourth time he’s finished outside the Top 20 in sixteen career starts at the track.
*Hamlin’s 9th-place start is the best starting spot by a Pocono last-place finisher in the Cup Series since July 29, 2001 when polesitter Todd Bodine led two laps of the Pennsylvania 500, then fell out with handling woes on his #66 K-Mart Blue Light Special Ford after 128 laps.
*This was the first time the #11 has finished last in a Cup race at Pocono since June 8, 1986, when Darrell Waltrip also started 9th in the Miller High Life 500, only to lose the engine on his #11 Budweiser Chevrolet after seven laps. It was one of two last-place finishes Waltrip scored in his final season driving for Junior Johnson, the other coming at Richmond that September. The Pocono race was won by the late Tim Richmond, the first of seven wins he scored that year on the way to a career-best 3rd-place finish in points.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #11-Denny Hamlin / 14 laps / crash
42) #19-Alex Kennedy / 22 laps / vibration
41) #35-Josh Wise / 44 laps / brakes
40) #98-Michael McDowell / 44 laps / brakes
39) #38-David Gilliland / 51 laps / crash
LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Mike Bliss (5)
2nd) Michael McDowell, Scott Riggs (3)
3rd) Bobby Labonte (2)
4th) Trevor Bayne, Dave Blaney, Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin, Jason Leffler, Paul Menard, Joe Nemechek, Scott Speed (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #19-Humphrey-Smith Racing (6)
2nd) #44-Xxxtreme Motorsports, #98-Phil Parsons Racing (3)
3rd) #7-Tommy Baldwin Racing, #11-Joe Gibbs Racing, #21-Wood Brothers Racing, #27-Richard Childress Racing, #31-Richard Childress Racing, #47-JTG Daugherty Racing, #51-Phoenix Racing, #87-NEMCO Motorsports, #95-Leavine Family Racing (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Toyota (9)
2nd) Ford (8)
3rd) Chevrolet (4)