TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin refused to worry about earning a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, even as driver after driver won a race to theoretically claim one of the 16 berths.
Under the new “win and you’re in” format, the pressure is on for drivers to reach Victory Lane during the regular season. Not since 2003 have 16 drivers won during the first 26 races, but the Sprint Cup Series is now on pace to hit that mark again — meaning one win might not be enough to guarantee a spot in the Chase.
Hamlin became the eighth different winner this season with his Sunday victory at Talladega Superspeedway. Through 10 races, only Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano have multiple wins, and former series champions Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart are still seeking their first victories.
“I wasn’t ever worried, but you get a little bit more panicked when it’s, ‘Win a race and you’re in the Chase,’” Hamlin said. “You see all these guys logging wins, wins, wins, and the next thing you know they’re running out of Chase spots. Now we can be a little bit more relaxed.”
The victory was the first points win of Hamlin’s career at a restrictor-plate track. He’d won four exhibition races at Daytona, but never when it counted.
He earned Sunday’s win by beating Harvick in a drag race after a restart with two laps to go, and was still out front when NASCAR froze the field on the last lap because of debris on the track.
“We really just want to win races, regardless of the implications of what this means for the Chase,” Hamlin said. “It feels so good to be back in Victory Lane in a points paying event. It feels great. I’ve got tons of exhibition wins on superspeedways, but none with points. I like it.”
Here’s five things that happened Sunday at Talladega:
Where was Dale?
Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. thrilled the crowd by leading three different times for 26 laps on Sunday.
But when it was time to race for the victory, he was nowhere to be found.
NASCAR’s most popular driver chose to lay back in the field after stopping for gas with 36 laps to go, and he never ran higher than 13th the rest of the day. He finished a disappointing 26th.
He did try to make a move in the outside lane late in the race, but his momentum was stopped when Michael McDowell pulled out in front of him.
“Anytime somebody jumps in the outside lane in front of you, you are not going to shove them on out there, especially a car like that. It just killed us,” he said.
Danica drives to the front
For the first time in her career, Danica Patrick led laps at a track other than Daytona.
The crowd gave a thunderous cheer when she drove to the front in the opening laps of the race, and she stayed there for six trips around Talladega. She’d entered the race with only two laps led on the season, both in the Daytona 500, a race she also led last year.
She finished 22nd.
“It was good out front,” she said. “I wish I could have stayed there.”
Tough day for BK
Brad Keselowski, a two-time Talladega winner, angered many of his fellow drivers for his aggressive driving at Talladega.
The 2012 Sprint Cup champion spun after darting in front of Patrick for the lead early in the race, in part because his crew chief said he didn’t have the space to make the move. It caused enough damage to drop him six laps off the pace.
Keselowski, racing aggressively to try to get his laps back, later triggered a 14-car accident with 51 laps remaining.
“Brad made a pretty bold move early, a mind-boggling move, in going in front of Danica and spun out in front of the field and got away with it,” Matt Kenseth said. “This time we weren’t so lucky. If it was the other way around and it was anybody else except for him, we’d all be getting lectured.”
Jeff Gordon also chastised Keselowski.
“I had seen him for several laps driving over his head being pretty aggressive,” Gordon said. “He wasn’t doing anybody any favors, nor himself.”
Keselowski accepted blame.
“I just spun out in front of the whole field,” he said.
Biffle’s bad break
Greg Biffle will be re-thinking the finish of Sunday’s race for a long time after a late caution prevented him from making an attempt at winning the race.
He was second behind Hamlin and considering when to make his move when NASCAR threw the yellow flag for debris on the track. It froze the field on the final lap of the race, and Biffle had to settle for second.
It would have been a rewarding win for Biffle, who is still looking for a victory to earn a spot in the Chase.
“It’s sort of bittersweet for us,” Biffle said. “We’ve still got some work to do, but it sure would have been nice to get a win toward the Chase.”
Many drivers complained throughout the race about their feet getting too hot on the floorboard of the cars during the race. It led to a funny post-race exchange between Biffle and third-place finisher Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer: “It’s just excruciating out there, it’s unbelievable.”
Biffle: “I’m glad somebody else’s feet were hot because mine were on fire all day. It wasn’t even that hot out.”
Bowyer: “Did you do the old cross-over for a while?”
Biffle: “Yeah, my heels were burned up.”
Bowyer: “I had to use my left foot for a little while.”
Biffle: “I’m not sure why.”
Bowyer: “Pays pretty good, though, so we’ll get through it.”
Asked what he did with his right leg while trying to drive with his left, Bowyer ended with: “Pick it up, stick it out the window, whatever you could do. It was hot.”