Posted: 10:10 am Monday, August 8th, 2016
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Denny Hamlin can now say he’s won on a road course. After losing on the last lap to Tony Stewart at Sonoma in June, Hamlin led the final 10 laps and used caution laps to help stretch his fuel 41 laps, en route to winning Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen.
Flag to Flag: Hamlin started the race 6th and would run in the top 5 most of the day, but not lead until the end. His teammate Carl Edwards (finished 15th) started on the pole and looked dominant until his first pit stops under green around lap 26. Edwards got a speeding penalty and had to do a pass-thru penalty under green, along with fellow contender A.J. Allmendinger (4th), who won this race two years ago and was hoping to do so again to make the Chase.
Edwards ceded the lead to Joey Logano (2nd), who stretched his fuel well past lap 30 and seemed to be on a two-stop strategy for the 90-lap race. Once he pitted (and also got a speeding penalty), a surprising Danica Patrick (21st) assumed the point. She had pitted under the lap 14 caution, leaving her up front for 11 laps, more than doubling her season laps led total to 21.
Kyle Busch (6th) then took the lead on lap 45 and pitted on a lap 54 caution, to ensure that he had fuel to the end. This brought Brad Keselowski (3rd) to the lead with Hamlin, each who had last pitted on lap 49. They would have to go 41 laps on fuel, if they were to make the finish. They would need some help and they got it.
While Keselowski showed his mastery of Watkins Glen up front, chaos assumed in the back of the field and kept the race from having another long green flag run. The lap 54 yellow was a scary wreck: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (38th) spun out and slammed the guardrail, collecting Austin Dillon (31st), teammate Greg Biffle (39th), and Jimmie Johnson (40th). Johnson was already in the back because of two green flag pit penalties. Stenhouse Jr.’s Chase hopes faded some more.
Two different debris cautions on lap 66 and lap 78 bunched the field again and allowed Keselowski and Hamlin to save fuel. Alex Kennedy’s (36th) blown engine on lap 78 oiled down the track and caused a major cleanup that affected the complexion of the race. The lap 81 restart saw both Keselowski and Ky. Busch swing wide in Turn 1, go well over the runoff strips, and lose the lead to Hamlin. Both blamed the speedy dry on the track, which makes sense, as Ryan Newman (16th) spun on his own in the same spot right after that.
The race went green on lap 84 and another big wreck broke out. After Paul Menard (22nd) got in the dirt and caused the field to check up. Kevin Harvick (32nd), who was back in the pack because he had to make an extra pit stop after he flat spotted his tire under caution, checked up and got turned by Brian Scott (25th). As Harvick spun, David Ragan (33rd) didn’t slow enough and nailed him in the hood, ending both of their days. Last week’s winner Chris Buescher (30th), got caught up in it, along with Patrick, Matt DiBenedetto (34th), Aric Almirola (27th), and Michael McDowell (17th). This, like the Stenhouse Jr. wreck, brought out the second red flag of the day, and really made the end of the race drag.
Once it got going again with four laps to go, Hamlin restarted with Logano right on his tail. Martin Truex Jr. (7th) got around Logano, as did Keselowski. Logano and Keselowski fought for position some more, before the No. 2 car closed in on the leaders. Truex Jr. could not get a run on Hamlin, but tried to go wide in the final turn. Keselowski went low and when Truex Jr. tried to get back in line, Keselowski turned him. As the No. 78 spun, Kyle Larson (29th) checked up and Allmendinger ran him over. Larson nailed the wall at the pit entrance and did not finish. That ended the race under yellow. Truex Jr. showed displeasure with Keselowski, tapping his car a few times on the cool down lap. But Keselowski apologized both in the car and on pit road after the race, diffusing the situation but not making Truex Jr. feel much better.
Watkins Glen’s new pavement meant very little tire wear and little grip. Drivers were aggressive and slid quite a bit, some even missing the Carrousel. With these challenges, the fuel strategy, and the incessant late race restarts, this Watkins Glen finish fell in line with those in recent years: epic.
Top 10: Hamlin; Logano (winner a year ago rebounded from fender damage and a pit road penalty); Keselowski (another brilliant fuel-stretching strategy); Allmendinger (felt awful about wrecking Larson and speeding early in the race); Tony Stewart (back-to-back 5th place finishes and four top 5s last five races); Ky. Busch (no one cursed more about the yellows at the end of the race than Busch, who slipped up on restarts and had the fuel to make it when others did not); Truex Jr. (another near-win, another spell of bad luck); Jamie McMurray (stayed out of trouble and had a good points day for his Chase hopes); Trevor Bayne (used strategy to get solid points run for the Chase); Matt Kenseth (up and down day could have gone much worse).
RaceTweet: Hamlin survives restarts, low fuel, back spasms to finally win first road course race at Watkins Glen.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Denny Hamlin – He did not lead the most laps, but he survived the hungry sharks at the end of the event and sat through excruciating pain the entire event, punctuated by two red flags. Hamlin said he might have sat out the race, had he not thought he could win. He did more than survive, he triumphed. Interesting stat: this is the second-straight year that the Daytona 500 winner won his next race at Watkins Glen. Logano did it last year and caught fire in the Chase. Hamlin is hoping for that.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson – It’s Johnson again and here’s why: he has crashed out of four of the last nine races. Johnson also got a pit road penalty on the first stop and then when he served the penalty, the team serviced the car again. That meant NASCAR had to penalize them again. How does that happen? Johnson has only one top 10 in the last nine races (3rd in the Brickyard 400) and only eight on the season. Good thing he won early in the year.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Joey Logano – Logano got popped for a speeding penalty before the midpoint of the race, so crew chief Todd Gordon used strategy to get him near the front. He held face and almost won the thing. If he had, Logano would have won four-straight Watkins Glen races (both NXS races the last two years, the Cup race last year, and the NXS race Saturday).
Ghost Driver: Kasey Kahne – With all the different strategies, pit road penalties, and wrecks shuffling the field, where was Kahne? He finished 20th and was never a part of the lead group, ever. He did get a speeding penalty early on, but unlike Allmendinger and Logano, never rebounded. While Kahne floundered and is 17th in points, Bayne, who is such an unrefined road racer that he ran Saturday’s race, is 16th in points and finished 9th in the race. Sunday was a missed opportunity for Kahne.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Casey Mears – He ran in the top 10 for a long stretch and finished 12th in the end. Not many underdog teams surfaced with the leaders, but Mears ran a clean race and got a decent result.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kyle Larson – He had run a great race and was in position to pick up some points and a great finish. But with the checkered flag in sight, he checked up to avoid the No 78 car and Allmendinger plowed him into the wall. Larson lost 25 points on that mishap and now has just an eight point advantage inside the Chase. Meanwhile, Buescher manages to wreck and still gain points on entering the top 30. If he does, then Larson is out. Larson trails teammate McMurray by 30 points for the next spot up in the Chase – instead of five points.
Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: Chris Buescher – Second week in a row for this. Buescher manages to wreck, finish 30th, and still gain points on Ragan, who finished 32nd. Ragan holds 30th in the standings, the place Buescher needs to be to qualify for the Chase. Buescher also gained points on 32nd-in-points Regan Smith, who fell victim to mechanical trouble early in the event. Luck will be a major foundation of Buescher making the Chase this year. It’s working out.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Furniture Row Racing announced Sunday that Erik Jones would pilot the No. 77 5-Hour Energy Toyota for the 2017 Sprint Cup season. Aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones, a JGR driver, will still essentially be with his powerhouse team. But the announced deal is only for 2017. Really? Arguably the hottest young talent in the sport, armed with a sponsor and paired with a burgeoning team that desperately wants to expand only officially gets inked for a year?
Here’s why: Jones is a JGR driver that is on loan to FRR, similarly to how Buescher is a Roush-Fenway Racing driver with the aligned Front Row Motorsports. Jones is ready for the Cup Series, but the JGR stable is full. So Jones is built in with some options.
Matt Kenseth is 44-years-old and is driving as well as he ever has, but he has to retire at some point. Some speculate that Erik Jones may hold a seat at FRR until he can replace Kenseth. Also in the JGR wings is Daniel Suarez, who has the sponsorship backing and now the stats to warrant a future Cup career. With Jones and Suarez, JGR has six great drivers and only four seats. That is why the relationship with FRR is an important one.
This seems to be the model for Cup teams: align with another satellite team and create a development program for a rookie. That is what Penske has done with the Wood Brothers and Ryan Blaney, Richard Childress Racing is kind of doing with Circle Sport/Leavine Family Racing and Ty Dillon, RFR with FRR and Buescher, and now JGR with FRR and Jones.
The ultimate goal for all of them is to get that driver under their actual umbrella and into one of their cars. In Gibbs’ case, they may not be able to do that very soon, but they have a very competitive team for their young driver to take flight,
NXS RaceTweet: Logano wins and battles hard with Keselowski at Watkins Glen, ahead of all sorts of crashes and Derrike Cope’s exploding tire. Seriously, what was that?
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott salvaged a good points day after a terrible string of luck, finishing 13th at The Glen. He’s now 41 points ahead of Larson, who effectively will be the first person out of the Chase once Buescher enters the top 30 in points. So he has a good points cushion, but needs to keep the results up.
David Ragan spun twice, the second time destroying both his and Harvick’s cars, finishing 32nd and now holding 30th in the standings by just four markers over his buddy Buescher. Reed Sorenson got replaced by road racer Alex Kennedy in the No. 55 for this week.
Saturday’s NXS race was decent for Brandon Jones, finishing 13th and still holding 8th in the standings with no real chance of falling out of the Chase. Ryan Sieg caught damage in the bad Todd Bodine wreck, placing two laps down in 23rd. And the struggle was real for Garrett Smithley – he finished 39th with overheating issues.
Next: The Cup and Truck Series are both off for the weekend and return at Bristol Motor Speedway. The Xfinity Series races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on USA on TV and MRN and Sirius/XM Ch. 90 on radio. That’s usually a good race.