Throughout the first 11 of his 12 seasons as a Sprint Cup driver, Denny Hamlin has never found much success on the circuit’s two road courses, Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
This year, Hamlin has seen his road course results improve dramatically. He was in position to win at Sonoma in June, leading the race in the closing stages before slipping in a turn and allowing Tony Stewart to get the lead and hold on for the win. Hamlin finished second there, but last Sunday at Watkins Glen it was Hamlin capitalizing, when Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch drove off the track just after a restart with 10 laps remaining in the Cheez-It 355.
Hamlin took the lead and held on the rest of the way to get his first career road-course win. He also led laps at Watkins Glen for the first time in his career.
“It means a lot,” Hamlin said. “I can’t tell you how disappointed I was we didn’t win the first one [at Sonoma earlier this year]. I just tried the best I could and overshot the corner [at Sonoma], and I didn’t want to do it this time, and so I probably underdrove and let those guys be a little closer than I should’ve.”
Hamlin’s biggest obstacle to overcome at Watkins Glen was back pain that left him limping and in obvious discomfort as he climbed from his car after the race. He’s had recurring back issues since a hard crash at Auto Club Speedway in 2013.
“I don’t know what causes it,” he said of the back pain. “It just happens every now and then.”
Hamlin said he knew he had a problem when he woke up Sunday morning, and said that if it had been just a practice day, he would have never gotten in his car.
“I slept wrong, something ... woke up and knew I was in pretty big trouble,” he said. “We worked on it all day to try to make it better. We really didn’t make it much better ...
“It was by far the worst conditions I’ve ever had to drive in, over the knees [which he’s injured in the past], anything else. This was by far the worst pain-wise I’ve had to go through.”
Behind Hamlin over the final laps at the Glen were Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr., who were both battling for the runner-up spot and for a chance to capitalize if Hamlin made a mistake.
That duel came to an end when Keselowski spun Truex on the last lap, which allowed Joey Logano to pass them both and take the runner-up spot over Keselowski.
Keselowski took the blame for the crash, saying Truex made a move he wasn’t expecting.
“I went high and the 78 [Truex] went high, and by then I was already deep in the corner and got into him and turned him,” Keselowski said. “That was really unfortunate and the last thing I wanted to see. This track here, when you drive into the corner, you commit and sometimes you don’t know what will happen when you commit. The last thing I wanted to do was turn him.”
Likewise, A.J. Allmendinger took the blame for a last-lap wreck that dropped Kyle Larson from fourth to 29th in the finishing order, and put him in jeopardy of missing the cut for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
While Larson is still among the top 16 in the standings, a winless driver like him likely will need to be at least 15th in the standings after the 26th and final race of the regular season, at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 10.
That’s because Chris Buescher, who won at Pocono Raceway the week before the Glen, needs only to move into the top 30 in the standings to claim one of the 16 Chase berths. Despite wrecking late in the race, Buescher finished 30th and cut his deficit from 30th place to three points.
Allmendinger, who wound up fourth, ahead of Tony Stewart, said after the race that he regretted wrecking Larson.
“He turned, and I just clipped him,” Allmendinger said. “I’m just not very happy with myself on that. I don’t want to do that, especially for fourth place.”