Sunday, June 13, 2021

CUP: Denny Hamlin's last-minute pit stop ends All-Star Race's 100-lap last-place battle

PHOTO: Brock Beard

Denny Hamlin finished last in Sunday’s running of the All-Star Race at the Texas Motor Speedway when his #11 FedEx Office Toyota finished under power after completing all 100 laps.

Now 16 races into the season, three stories have captured much of the attention – the series of different winners that began the year, the Hendrick dominance that has since followed it, and the perplexing winless streaks of both Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin. For Hamlin, the year began with a chance to become the first driver ever to win the Daytona 500 in three straight years. He was well on his way to accomplishing it, leading 98 laps, only to find himself out of contention in the final laps. Since then, Hamlin has amassed the most points of any driver, scoring top-five finishes in all but seven of the first 16 races and a Top Ten in all but four. He’s also completed all but three laps all season and led 756 of the combined 4,291. But he still arrived in Texas without a single checkered flag in 2021. But he was also the 2015 winner of the All-Star Race, and would roll off 16th on the night of the event.

Among those excited to take part in the event was Michael McDowell, winner of the 500 that slipped through Hamlin’s fingers. While active in Cup on at least a part-time schedule since 2008, McDowell never raced in the Open until 2013, and had only made six starts since with a best finish of 7th at Bristol last year. He’d start 11th, five spots ahead of Hamlin.

“I’m excited to be a part of it. It’s my first All-Star Race, and so it was fun to watch the Open and not be in it, and be able to know you’re locked-in. And obviously the format tonight is gonna create a lot of excitement and some opportunity and with no practice you just hope that you’re gonna unload just where you wanna be. . .but you just don’t know until you get those first laps out there and get going.”

The extreme heat and humidity of the weekend threatened to be as much of a challenge as the race itself. I asked McDowell of his experience racing in extreme temperatures. “I think our cars are hot every week, so it’s a part of it,” he said. “When you go to Pocono or Indy and those places, it’s hot just like this. I think that tonight, once the sun comes down, it’ll get a little bit cooler, a little bit better. But the other part of this race is it’s a short race, so you don’t put in the driver comfort things that you normally would, and so I think that makes it a little bit hotter because you’re not typically running all of the systems you would normally run to keep the driver cool just to save weight. . .So you’re kind of pushing everything to the limit – driver included – so it’s a good test for everybody.”

Looking ahead on the schedule, he also was excited to tackle Road America in a Cup car, a track where he scored his first XFINITY win in 2016. “Yeah, definitely. Road America’s one we have circled for sure that we feel like we’ll have a shot for running up front at and winning.”

With no drivers sent to the rear for pre-race penalties, Fan Vote winner Matt DiBenedetto rolled off in 21st place in the #21 Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford. DiBenedetto trailed the field coming to the green, but by the end of Lap 1 dropped Aric Almirola to last in the #10 Smithfield Ford. Moments later, the caution fell on Lap 2 for a fender rub on Christopher Bell’s #20 Craftsman Toyota. Bell made it to pit road without incident, and took over last place.

On the restart, Almirola was again behind Bell, but got past the #20 on Lap 5, by which point both drivers were a short distance back of the remaining field. Bell continued to lose ground over the next two circuits, but by Lap 12 had again caught Almirola entering the quad-oval. Looking low, Bell nearly put his right-front wheel on the grass to attempt a pass, and the pair were again side-by-side on Lap 15. Bell finally cleared the #10 just before Round 1 ended on Lap 15, putting Almirola in last place.

For Round 2, Bell picked the inside lane with Almirola to his outside, and Almirola this time drew ahead by Lap 17. On Lap 20, Ryan Newman dropped back in his #6 Wyndham Rewards Ford until he was in the sights of last-place Almirola. The two remained in a stalemate, and the #10 began to lose touch with Newman’s Ford. With two laps to go in the round, DiBenedetto had also dropped back, and the #21 finished just ahead of the #10 as the pair crossed the stripe side-by-side to end Round 2.

Dillon edges Newman for last past the stripe---

The following inversion for Round 3 brought Almirola to the lead and placed two Penske Racing teammates to the final row:  Brad Keselowski in the #2 Discount Tire Ford and Ryan Blaney in the #12 Menards / Wrangler Ford. Blaney lagged back on the restart, but passed Keselowski the next time by. Both then worked their way past Kurt Busch in the #1 Gear Wrench Chevrolet, but Kurt dropped Blaney to last again on Lap 34. By then, Kurt had his sights set on Keselowski, who was locked in a side-by-side battle with Ross Chastain. Keselowski then dropped to last on Lap 36, and the next time by was several carlengths back of the field – the biggest deficit of the race so far. The nearly one-second gap stabilized on Lap 39, and the #2 was soon reeling in the slipping Cole Custer in the #41 Ford. Keselowski and Custer were both running by themselves, but Custer managed to hold off Keselowski when Round 3 concluded.

For the Lap 46 restart to begin Round 4, Keselowski was advised by NASCAR to close up more on the field. He was still at least two carlengths back of the next car in line when he took the green, and by the next lap had dropped Martin Truex, Jr.’s #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota to last for the first time all night. Truex then caught still another new challenger in Open Stage 2 winner Tyler Reddick in the #8 iCash Autos / I Am Second Chevrolet. Like Keselowski, Reddick then lost around a second to the next car in line before the gap stabilized and he slowly reeled in Truex once more. On the final lap of the round, Reddick dove under Truex entering Turn 1, but couldn’t make it stick, and the #8 remained in 21st place.

Reddick remained last for the Round 5 restart, and green-flag stops soon shuffled much of the order. Christopher Bell re-took last place on Lap 66, followed by Austin Dillon in the #3 Andy’s Frozen Custard Chevrolet on Lap 70. Dillon would ultimately incur three of the night’s four pit road penalties, each for a different cause. A pass-through penalty for speeding had put him in last while pitting before pit road was open on Lap 79, then driving through more than three pit boxes on Lap 90 would keep him there. Dillon retained the spot even as Ross Chastain had a harmless spin in Turn 2 on Lap 80. And, like Brad Keselowski before him, Dillon would lag back for the restart. When Round 5 ended, Christopher Bell again nearly clipped the infield grass, but the order remained the same. The aforementioned pit box penalty was then handed to Dillon, keeping him in last for the final ten laps.

---until Hamlin comes down pit road, window net down.

When the final sprint began, Dillon lined up next to Ryan Newman’s #6, and the two would battle for much of the final stage. Dillon put Newman to last with 8 to go, but couldn’t shake Newman, who worked to his inside entering Turn 1 the next time by. Dillon held him off, but Newman tried the move again with five to go. Again, Dillon kept the momentum going and kept the #6 in last place. By then, both had reeled in Chastain with DiBenedetto in front of the #42, who threatened to turn it into a four-car battle on the final lap. While Chastain held the inside line, putting Newman in his draft, Dillon held the outside and crossed the line less than a carlength ahead of Newman.

Only, by now, it suddenly wasn’t the battle for last place.

As the tail end of the field streaked across the finish line, Denny Hamlin rolled down pit road at reduced speed, his window net down. “We had lugnuts loose,” said Hamlin after walking from his car. “and we'd get our crew chief suspended because of a lugnut loose, so we don’t wanted [sic] to have that.” Thus, while Hamlin’s pit stall was past the starting line, his decision to pit had dropped him behind both Newman and Dillon, causing him to take the last spot at practically the last moment. Hamlin continued around the track, joining the rest of the field at the far end of pit road after the cool-down lap, and was credited with still finishing under power. The decision had saved the team from a possible penalty, as NASCAR reported no lugnut penalties after the race.

Newman, Dillon, Chastain, and DiBenedetto rounded out the Bottom Five – all of them within a fraction of a second of each other. And for the second-straight year at two radically different tracks, the All-Star Race saw the entire field complete every lap.

*This marked the first-ever last-place finish for the #11 in the All-Star Race.

21) #11-Denny Hamlin / 100 laps / running
20) #6-Ryan Newman / 100 laps / running
19) #3-Austin Dillon / 100 laps / running
18) #42-Ross Chastain / 100 laps / running
17) #21-Matt DiBenedetto / 100 laps / running


Unknown said...

Thank you for a complete explanation of the finish of the All-Star race. Nothing was mentioned on the broadcast coverage about Hamlin pitting.

Chad said...

For once, all the drivers finished the race AND on the lead lap.