By Mike Mulhern
If he who laughs last laughs best, then Toyota men – after taking a few verbal shots on the chin lately—are all smiles today, with Denny Hamlin whipping Rick Hendrick’s Chevy quartet, Richard Childress’ Jeff Burton, and Jack Roush’s two best Fords, Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray, in winning Sunday’s Goody’s 500.
“First Virginia win for me, finally,” the Richmond racer said after leading 82 of the 500 laps in his first NASCAR tour victory since last July at Loudon, N.H. “We’ve had such bad luck over these last few weeks, and it feels good to get a win in front of these homestate fans.
“Maybe we’ve got the monkey off our backs now. When you get so close to winning so many times and lose, it takes its toll on you, and you start to lose confidence. We could have won three in a row this year, but we’ve just had problems.”
Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford gambled on skipping the final round of pit stops, to gain track position, and once Hamlin got the lead with 20 miles to go, passing Burton, he sprinted away.
And the win again shows the strength of Toyota’s engine torque at power tracks.
“We know there is more to come, and by midseason we’ll be making some strides in the power department,” Ford said. “Kyle won at Atlanta, a serious engine track. And we come here and win, at a track where bottom-end power is so important.
“We’re focusing on durability right now, and when we get comfortable with that, we’ll go for more power.”
And that should make Toyota’s rivals sweat a lot.
Burton, who wound up third, snatched the NASCAR Cup tour points lead away from Kyle Busch, after Busch had problems early, lost more than 50 laps for repairs, and finished a dismal 38th. And Burton’s teammate Kevin Harvick, 12th, is now second in the standings heading this week to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Jeff Gordon, runner-up by three lengths, made a brilliant charge down the stretch but came up short. “It was an awesome race, a lot of swapping the lead…and it came down to pit strategy, and Denny was right to take just two tires,” Gordon said. “He didn’t take any tires? That makes his run even more impressive.
“Track position was important, but Denny just drove right up through there, so that shows he had the car to win.
“My car just wouldn’t go on that last set (of tires). We had a great car the first half of the race.
“I was trying to figure out why my car didn’t have any grip at the end, but when I got out of the car and saw how it was spitting rain I knew. I had no idea.
“It looked like it was snowing.
“I’ve seen worse conditions, but never worse conditions that we were racing in. Got out and it felt like it was sleeting.
“It was a pretty good day, all things considered.
“And I had to salute these fans for sticking it out—this shows the loyal fan base we have.”
NASCAR reported the crowd at 63,000 but that appeared to be quite generous, and it was nowhere near a sellout.
Burton appeared the man to beat down the stretch, but after Hamlin slipped around him, rookie Michael McDowell wound up fouling Burton up.
“We know that track position here is more important than tires,” Ford said.
“And, nope, no worries about fuel pickup, because our problem at Bristol was a high-bank track issue, not a flat track issue….but I was worried about a green-white-checkered (overtime).”
“I ran Denny back down, and I thought it was going to be a good race…..but (McDowell) better learn some manners or he’ll get taught,” Burton snapped. “He was real inconsiderate. He can learn it the easy way or the hard way, but he’s going to learn some manners.
“I didn’t give us much of a chance to win Saturday. But Scott Miller and the guys really worked hard.
“Denny came by pretty hard and got by me. But then I started running him back down. But every time I got in traffic I couldn’t get aggressive.”
Gordon, though, pointed out that McDowell is just a rookie. “He did it all day long, he was consistent. Just a rookie learning things,” Gordon said.
“I’m sorry if I held him up, it wasn’t the intention,” McDowell said. “But I was racing Travis Kvapil and Greg Biffle at the time…and I was trying to keep the car in the top-35 (in points). Denny got by and we were able to hang with him for four or five laps, and once Jeff Burton put the nose under me, I let him go.
“I made a few mistakes out there I’m sure, but by no means was I trying to hold Jeff up. Next time maybe I need to give him more room.
“There wasn’t a lot of ‘give’ out there. A lot more ‘take.’ Especially for me being the new guy. I have to go out there and earn their respect. I think we did a good job – we ran all the laps and almost finished on the lead lap.”
Jimmie Johnson, Gordon’s teammate, didn’t make it four in a row here, but he was strong enough. However a mid-race incident cost him track position and he never quite recovered. “It was definitely a good day, we had a shot to win,” Johnson said.
“But losing track position early…Greg Biffle into Ryan Newman, I don’t know what that was all about, but it hurt us.”
If NASCAR’s new winged car is supposed to even up the competition, Sunday’s 500 was another example that it hasn’t. The top 12 finishers were from the major teams – Joe Gibbs’, Rick Hendrick’s, Richard Childress’, and Jack Roush’s.
Hendrick men Gordon, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Casey Mears all ran very strong and could easily have swept the top four spots.
However they didn’t, and Hendrick is now 0-for-6 this season, and Earnhardt is still nearly two years without a tour victory.
Gordon obviously isn’t worried about media pundits questioning Hendrick’s winless streak: “We didn’t win, and if any track is good for us, this is it. But it was awesome to have all our cars up there running good.”
So Burton heads to Texas, which has been a very good track for him over the years. In fact he won last spring’s Texas 500.
Despite his win at Bristol, and his strong runs, and strong runs by teammates Harvick and Clint Bowyer, Burton is still cautious about how the season is shaping up: “To be honest I don’t think we’re running as well this year as we did at this point last year. We’ve run third to 10th; we’ve got to be better.
“We have a lot of room to grow. We just haven’t had a catastrophic day like some teams have had, and that’s why we’re up there in the points.”