|ALL SCREENSHOTS: Seth Eggert, Kickin' The Tires|
Hamlin enjoyed the strongest possible start to the season, becoming just the fourth driver in NASCAR history to win the Daytona 500 in back-to-back years. However, in the three races that followed, the #11 FedEx Toyota was conspicuously absent from the lead, having not led a single lap since. He finished 17th in Las Vegas, 6th in Fontana, then struggled to a 20th-place run in Phoenix.
Things turned around once again during quarantine as Hamlin won the season opener for the Pro Invitational Series at Homestead, edging Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in a thrilling finish. Other than a 24th-place finish in the next round at Texas, his finishes remained strong on the sim racing side, taking 4th at Bristol and 6th in Richmond. While doing so, his #11 carried a thank you to FedEx’s team members as they continue to keep the country’s supply chain going during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hamlin, who won the spring Talladega race in 2014, had a difficult start to the sim race weekend. He qualified just 36th on the 39-car starting grid, having missed qualifying while trying to log onto TeamSpeak. He would immediately gain three spots. Due to their status as “Sim Racing Ringers,” William Byron, Timmy Hill, and Parker Kligerman were all sent to the rear of the pack, surrendering the 32nd, 33rd, and 35th starting spots. They would slot in behind original last-place qualifier Ryan Blaney in the #12 Menards Ford with Byron the new last-place starter.
Byron, running the same paint scheme with which he finished last in this year’s Daytona 500, maintained the last spot on Lap 1. He was soon joined by Kyle Busch, who surrendered the 19th spot by dropping to the apron just after the green flag. Busch and Byron raced each other for the spot before both moved ahead of Joey Gase, who took the 39th spot by Lap 5. Gase’s #53 ASC / Carolina Cooker Chevrolet carried a Bobby Allison throwback scheme similar to Tony Stewart’s from Darlington in 2016.
On Lap 6, Joey Logano took the last spot in his #22 Ford, followed four laps later by Ryan Preece in the #37 Chevrolet. On Lap 15, the spot then fell to Erik Jones, who had made a daring save in the tri-oval during the early laps. It was Hamlin who banged doors with Jones, sending the #20 Toyota into the grass. When Jones took last, he was also the first driver to trail by open track, sitting a full 21 seconds back of the lead.
|Bowyer loses an engine for a second straight race.|
McDowell lost five laps for repairs, but continued on in the race. He soon linked up with Hamlin, who by then had been involved in another accident, this time with Cole Custer in the #41 Ford. The incident, which didn’t bring out the caution flag, left Hamlin’s #11 with heavy damage to the front of his car, and he locked onto the draft of McDowell. At the time, Hamlin had dropped to 38th with Custer some distance ahead of him in 37th. The pair of them were lapped by the leaders with 36 to go, putting McDowell a sixth lap down. Furious, Hamlin said “I’m just gonna start fuckin’ wrecking everyone, because they can’t drive for shit.”
Next to contend for last place was Clint Bowyer in the #14 Barstool Sports Ford. Last week at Richmond, Bowyer was involved in multiple accidents, then blew an engine, leaving him out of the race. Late in Sunday’s Talladega round, Bowyer moved into the lead and was working over Alex Bowman in the tri-oval when the engine blew once more. He pulled out of line and dropped to the apron, requiring a long trip back to pit road. Fortunately, unlike Richmond, Bowyer still had a “Quick Repair,” and returned to the race multiple laps down. He also avoided dropping further back than 38th as he didn’t lose as much time as McDowell, leaving the #34 in last.
Moments later, Hamlin unexpectedly crashed into the wall. He returned to pit road, overshot his stall, and threw his car into reverse. Initial reports were that Hamlin was booted from iRacing’s server for backing up into his pit stall, making him the first retiree from the race. Soon after, Jeff Gluck reported Hamlin’s computer monitor went out, causing the accident. An extra layer of intrigue came from Hamlin himself, who revealed his young daughter Taylor found the remote control and accidentally turned off the screen. “Uh oh,” she said.
Hamlin was kicked from the server and did not return to the race, dropping him to last with around 11 laps to go. McDowell ultimately climbed out of the Bottom Five to finish 34th, passing several other drivers eliminated in late-race incidents. Jeff Gordon tangled with teammate Chase Elliott, costing him nearly ten laps for repairs. He returned to the track, but was unable to pass both Jones and Logano, where eliminated in a big Turn 1 pileup started by Logano’s unexpected turn to the left. Rounding out the group was Matt DiBenedetto, who finished one lap down in a new blue-and-white scheme on his #21 Ford.
Restrictor plate racing has always held the potential for great runs by underdog drivers, and Sunday was no different. Ty Dillon was battling Alex Bowman for the lead for much of the late stages, his #13 GEICO Chevrolet pacing the field for eight laps. He was still in contention for the win when he was spun entering the tri-oval for the final time, leaving him 23rd.
Corey LaJoie, who won the pole for Sunday’s race, inherited the runner-up spot after a fine charge on the inside lane, then pulled low leaving the tri-oval. LaJoie came within just 0.037 of a second of pulling off the victory.
Brennan Poole qualified a strong 7th, contended for the lead early, and ran as high as 2nd. He then faced a setback after his #15 Chevrolet was collected in an accident. Following his “Quick Repair,” Poole rejoined the lead battle and finished 7th. All this came just days after word that his team owner Jay Robinson had completed a sale of Premium Motorsports to Rick Ware Racing.
One of the most impressive runs belonged to Joey Gase, who pitted off-sequence and got his #53 into the lead draft. Gase clawed his way into the Top 5 in the late stages and looked in position to take the lead before he was booted to the high groove with no help. He was then collected in Logano’s late-race accident, leaving him a disappointing 20th.
*Car #11 has just one last-place finish in a Cup Series race at Talladega. It occurred on April 25, 1999, when Brett Bodine’s Paychex Ford was collected in an eight-car wreck on the backstretch triggered by contact between Jeff Gordon and Mike Skinner. It was Bodine’s sixth of eight career Cup Series last-place finishes.
*Hamlin has never finished last in a Cup race at Talladega.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
39) #11-Denny Hamlin / 51 laps / monitor / led 1 lap
38) #24-Jeff Gordon / 65 laps / running
37) #20-Erik Jones / 67 laps / crash
36) #22-Joey Logano / 67 laps / crash
35) #21-Matt DiBenedetto / 73 laps / running