Martinsville for Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch was a tire nightmare. However, for teammate Denny Hamlin, was it the start of a come back?
There was a lot of hype surrounding teammate Kyle Busch entering the Chase, so the fact that Hamlin finished 3rd in the last three races before the Chase was somewhat over looked.
Hamlin’s consistency made him a good pick for a dark horse coming into the Chase. Yet, as fate would have it as the Chase began the Gibbs team would be cursed with blown engines and crashes and Hamlin was no exception.
Talladega sent Hamlin to the hospital, but he was back in the saddle for Charlotte earning finish of 16th. At Martinsville back in full health, with a solid car it seem the old Hamlin has found his way back to the track.
Due to qualifying being rained out Hamlin started in 12th. At Martinsville lap traffic can be an issue but Hamlin was able to quickly move up into the top ten.
By Lab 124 Hamlin was side by side with Jimmy Johnson for seventh. Hamlin’s connection and confront with the Martinsville track was clear as he didn’t let up on Johnson for a minute, following right with him as they both passed Bobby Labonte on Lap 127 for fifth (Johnson) and sixth (Hamlin).
By Lap 133 Hamlin was in the top five.
Knowing the tire issue of his teammates Hamlin was vigilant over the radio checking on his tires and brakes. Mike Ford assured Hamlin the brakes had very little color.
Hamlin was continuing to dig but found himself slipping in track position, as his tire were giving out. The No. 11 car was reanimated after pitting and Hamlin was quickly back to regain a top five position.
Hamlin would pass Gordon for sixth place on Lap 375, which began a heated ballot between the two of him. Gordon would retake his position from Hamlin on Lap 400.
However, after dispensing with some strong lap traffic opposition from Juan Pablo Montoya, Hamlin would catch Gordon on Lap 453 and pass him for fourth. However Gordon would take fourth from Hamlin after gaining track position from pitting.
Fourth may have slipped through Hamlin’s figures but fifth was as fight Hamlin won. Casey Mears wasn’t simply going to allow Hamlin to drift into fifth. Mears brought a brutal fight for fifth right until the end. Hamlin stayed steady and fifth was his.
The No. 11 team was quick and efficient in pitting. The car required only minor adjustment and Hamlin was a smart aggressive driver once again.
Did Martinsville mark a turn around for the No. 11 team? Could Hamlin be the spark the Gibbs team needs? Atlanta will say for sure.