With his top five finish last week in Bristol and just two races before the race to the Chase begins, Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin was looking to solidify his fourth-place points position entering Atlanta Motor Speedway.
With a victory at Pocono earlier in the year, eight top fives and 12 top 10s, Hamlin is having a quiet, successful 2009. The same can't be said for AMS, where despite a third-place finish in 2008, the driver of the No. 11 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota held an average finish of just 16.5 coming into the first ever night race held at the track.
The first practice for Hamlin got off to a good start; he was third on the charts throughout, but struggled with comfort issues on what he called a "twitchy" car. The Joe Gibbs Racing team ran just 16 laps in Happy Hour on Saturday, where they ended the session 31st on the charts.
“We've got six or seven top fives the last ten races," Hamlin told Hermie Sadler during Race Day Built by the Home Depot. "We're coming on strong, we've just got to be a little bit better in a few more areas to be winners on a week in, week out basis.
“You're going to have to have a car that is adjustable. This race track does change quite a bit. Myself, Kurt, Jamie and Tony all tire-tested here and they came back with a tire none of us ran on. So it's tough to say what to expect, but I'm sure you're going to have to have a car that's adjustable.”
Hamlin started the Pep Boys Auto Parts 500 in 10th, and once the green flag flew he quickly found a home on the top lane and began picking up positions. Ten laps into the event, Hamlin was running eighth and steadily making his way threw the field.
The first pit stop for the leaders came on lap 37 for the first of two spins by Sam Hornish, Jr. Throughout the night the leaders, including Hamlin, took four tires and fuel, and Hamlin carried on in the top 10, coming off pit road in sixth.
Quietly, Hamlin gained a spot in the top five and another solid stop by his pit crew helped him retain it after the second set of stops on the night, coming on lap 60.
By the time the third caution of the race came out for oil on the track, Hamlin and his crew kept the No. 11 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota in the top five, running fourth at the time.
Lap 110 was when Hamlin started making noise, roaring past Jeff Gordon in second and shooting toward his teammate, leader Kyle Busch.
Hamlin was quick to make work of his lead, but was passed by the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson on lap 128.
Retaining his second-place stop once Johnson's substantial lead was erased by caution, and stalked new leader Jeff Gordon upon the restart on lap 140.
He took the lead again lap 164, but it was short lived when a charging Kevin Harvick immediately took the lead from him.
Once green flag pit stops cycled out on lap 192, Hamlin made quick work of second-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and began a charge to erase the nearly six-second lead of Harvick. He was helped in his pursuit by the sixth caution of the night, and was barely beaten off pit road by the No. 29.
Spinning his tires on the lap 207 restart, Hamlin kept his No. 11 Toyota in the top three, holding third before being passed by Mark Martin to slip back to fourth on lap 278.
After Kurt Busch and Reed Sorenson caused the seventh caution of the night, Hamlin once again hit pit road with the leaders for another track bar adjustment, fuel and those all important fresh Goodyear tires. His crew also made an air pressure adjustment, and he restarted fifth on lap 273.
Even though Hamlin made it up to fourth after the restart, he would eventually fall back to sixth after Harvick and Martin passed him for fourth and fifth.
Hamlin would battle in and out of the top five, ultimately finishing sixth after he and Martin battled in the 11 lap shoot out that saw Kasey Kahne reach victory lane over Kevin Harvick.
"It was difficult, that’s for sure. It just seemed like the track had stages it went through. I’ve never seen a track change so much during the course of the race. We were the only team that maintained up front from the beginning to the end of the race. I don’t know what it was. The track changed, and it seemed like every set of tires we put on were different. It was a challenge today to just get the balance," Hamlin said after the race.
With his sixth-place finish, Hamlin goes into the Chevy Rock 'n Roll 400 at Richmond knowing he's locked in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"It’s great for our whole FedEx team and Farm Bureau Insurance for coming on this weekend. It’s a pretty good accomplishment to make it four years in a row, every year that we’ve tried. I just can’t say enough for this team. If we keep running the next 11 (races) like we have these last 10 or 11, they’re going to have to watch out for us," Hamlin said.
For more information on Denny Hamlin, be sure to check out this official web site. For Jeff Burton's Lugnut Report, click here. If you'd like to read the Lugnut Report's from Bristol, click here for Jeff Gordon's and here for Reed Sorenson's.
Thanks to Paddocktalk.com for the quotes used in this article.