Denny Hamlin is quick to say superspeedways aren’t his forte. Short-track racing is his history and his specialty.
He also thinks his victory in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway was due, if only because fate robbed him of a prime opportunity weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway in California.
A piece of metal, lodged in one of his eyes, wasn’t diagnosed in time for him to drive that day. Hamlin felt he had a great car in California. He had a good car Sunday, but he was in the right spot to benefit from a late caution.
The yellow flag came out on the last lap after a piece of Justin Allgaier’s car came loose in a crash. Since Hamlin had taken the white flag, he was declared the winner as soon as the yellow came out.
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This was Hamlin’s 24th Cup series victory but his first at Talladega or Daytona, where restrictor-plate racing is a very different challenge than the short tracks Hamlin loves.
Hamlin says he has learned from past mistakes at superspeedways.
“I drive superspeedway races a lot differently than I used to,” he said. “I’m not the guy always making the move. I kind of stay in line and be patient.
“It isn’t random. It’s the patience and the things I’ve learned from experience. I used to make holes (in the field), and that got me in trouble.”
Patience has been tough for Hamlin to practice of late. He had a disappointing 2013 season, primarily because of a compression fracture in his back that cost him more than a month of races. That effectively took him out of contention for the season-ending Chase.
He has been trying to get himself back in form. While running about 10th for most of the past three races, he had various mishaps that pushed his final results to finishes outside of the top 10.
Then Sunday happened. Several wrecks – the biggest involving Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson – thinned the field late. Hamlin grabbed the lead and was being pursued by Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer.
In the drafting environment that is restrictor-plate racing, attempting a pass too soon on the leader becomes self-defeating because a car can get by itself and lose speed dramatically. That was the calculation Biffle and Bowyer were making at the end, but the yellow flag made it all moot.
“I looked in the mirror and saw smoke (from Allgaier’s accident) behind me. I could have made my move then,” said Biffle, who finished second. “But I didn’t want to pass too early. I’d have been a lone solder (i.e. no one to draft with) and ended up 15th. I wish I’d known we weren’t going to race back” to the finish line.
Biffle’s and Bowyer’s spotters were so involved with the action of the three cars, they didn’t immediately look back to see the debris near the finish line.
“I wonder why no one told me there’s half a car on the track,” said Bowyer, who finished third. “We all saw the smoke, and it’s 400 feet behind us. We’re supposed to be looking through the windshield.”
Hamlin was asked whether the yellow flag rescued him at the end. He replied he liked his position and doesn’t assume he would have been passed.
“I’d rather be on defense than offense those last two laps,” said Hamlin, adding he previously was the one doing the chasing when Dale Earnhardt Jr. beat him out in the Daytona 500.
“As long as you block the guy’s line, it’s tough (to pass) with the aero package we have now. I liked where we were at.”
Hamlin and Bowyer thought NASCAR did the right thing by waving the caution late on the final lap. That did not leave the option of a green-white-checkered finish.
“We both felt we had the opportunity to pounce for the win,” Bowyer said of himself and Biffle. “But NASCAR did the right thing by not putting people in danger. (The timing of the debris) is not on NASCAR. But we just didn’t get that wild, crazy finish.”
Hamlin added, “NASCAR did a really good job of letting it play out as long as it could. There was at least half a lap to improve your position.”