|SOURCE: Action Sports Photography, Motorsport.com|
The finish was Hamlin’s first of 2014 and his first in a Cup race since last August’s race at Pocono, 32 races ago.
After a miserable 2013 season ended with a much-needed win in the season finale at Homestead, Hamlin looked to 2014 for a much-needed rebound. He then surprised many by having perhaps the strongest car throughout SpeedWeeks at Daytona, coming just one position short of becoming the first driver ever to sweep the Sprint Unlimited, Budweiser Duel, and Daytona 500 - a feat even more remarkable considering his radio wasn’t working in the frantic final stages of the 500. He then put himself in position for a Chase berth with his first-ever win at Talladega.
However, Fontana, the scene of his critical injury last season, was once again the site of heartbreak when he was sidelined for a shard of metal in his eye, forcing him to hand the wheel over to Sam Hornish, Jr. Combined with two finishes outside the Top 20 heading into Kentucky, Hamlin came into Saturday’s race just 13th in points.
On Friday, Hamlin was 21st-fastest in the opening practice, then jumped to 10th in Happy Hour before he made it to the final round of qualifying, securing him the 4th starting spot with an average lap of 186.374 mph. It was Hamlin’s ninth top-ten start in seventeen races this season, a year when he’s scored two poles at Bristol and Pocono.
Saturday’s race marked the first time that fewer than 43 cars started a Cup Series event since the season finale at New Hampshire in November 2001. That race, postponed from September due to the atrocities of 9/11, had a short field after two full-time teams folded during those two months: #27 fielded by Eel River Racing and the #96 from Cal Wells’ PPI Motorsports. The last time too few cars showed up for a regularly-scheduled Cup race was on September 15, 1996, when 41 cars ran in a race for 42 after the withdrawal of Eric Smith’s #49 Campbell Racing Ford. It was Smith’s seventh and final attempt to make a Cup race.
Kentucky’s situation occurred in much the same way. On June 25, the #77 Randy Humphrey Racing team announced they would be “retooling” their team over the next month and planned to return at Indianapolis at the end of July. With just 42 cars on the Entry List, BK Racing brought back its #93 for the first time since SpeedWeeks at Daytona, bringing the number to 43. The car, one of Alex Bowman’s backup cars with the #93 decals from Travis Kvapil’s BK ride in 2013, was qualified and driven by Mike Bliss, who was set to make his first Cup start since last fall at Atlanta. However, on practice day, Xxxtreme Motorsports withdrew J.J. Yeley’s #44 All City Leasing & Warehousing Chevrolet from the list, citing the same plan as Humphrey, leaving just 42 cars on the grid for Saturday.
At the start of Saturday’s race, Bliss and the #93 Dr. Pepper Toyota remained in the 42nd spot while Tony Stewart, sent to the back due to a transmission change, picked his way through the field. Bliss was the first driver to lose a lap around Lap 15, and he and the rest of the field awaited NASCAR’s competition caution on Lap 30 in response to late-afternoon showers washing the rubber off the race track.
Seconds before the caution was to fly, Hamlin, running 3rd at the time, lost a right-front tire heading into Turn 3, sending his car hard into the outside wall. Though Hamlin was uninjured and climbed out under his own power, his car was too damaged to return to the track, and his night was done. Hamlin now sits 17th in points.
Mike Bliss parked the #93 under the ensuing caution, three laps behind Hamlin. Right-front tire problems also knocked-out 40th-place Kyle Larson and 39th-place Aric Almirola, the latter having tangled with Jamie McMurray earlier in the race. Rounding out the Bottom Five was Joe Nemechek, whose #66 Identity Ventures Racing team carried new sponsorship from male enhancement company Vydox.
*This was the first last-place finish for both Hamlin and the #11 in a Cup race at Kentucky.
*Hamlin is the fourth driver this season to start inside the Top 10 and finish last in the same race, joining Martin Truex, Jr. (Started 2nd in the Daytona 500), Clint Bowyer (3rd at Richmond), and Brian Vickers (9th at Dover).
THE BOTTOM FIVE
42) #11-Denny Hamlin / 27 laps / crash
41) #93-Mike Bliss / 30 laps / transmission
40) #42-Kyle Larson / 75 laps / crash
39) #43-Aric Almirola / 175 laps / crash
38) #66-Joe Nemechek / 239 laps / running
LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Dave Blaney (2)
2nd) Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., David Gilliland, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Travis Kvapil, Michael McDowell, Joe Nemechek, Morgan Shepherd, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex, Jr., Ryan Truex, Brian Vickers (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #77-Randy Humphrey Racing (2)
2nd) #11-Joe Gibbs Racing, #14-Stewart-Haas Racing, #15-Michael Waltrip Racing, #32-Go FAS Racing, #33-Circle Sport, #38-Front Row Motorsports, #40-Hillman Racing, #43-Richard Petty Motorsports, #55-Michael Waltrip Racing, #66-Michael Waltrip Racing / Identity Ventures Racing, #78-Furniture Row Racing, #83-BK Racing, #87-NEMCO-JRR Motorsports, #88-Hendrick Motorsports, #95-Leavine Family Racing (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Ford, Toyota (6)
2nd) Chevrolet (5)