BROOKLYN, Mich. — Denny Hamlin was on top of the stock car racing world for a good portion of last season, when he won a Sprint Cup Series best eight races. The 2011 tour has been considerably different, and Hamlin was winless until he returned to Michigan International Speedway, the site of one of his most dominant performances from the previous year.
Charging out of the pits first with only eight laps left in Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, Hamlin held off Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch over the final sprint and returned to Victory Lane.
“We got it done,” said a relieved Hamlin, who has been in the top 10 in six races this season.
“I feel like over these last six or seven weeks we’ve been as good as anyone. We expect to win, but we’ve just had little bugs keeping us from doing that. We finally hit it.”
Hamlin started 10th in the field, but he spent most of the race mired out of the top 10 while Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth slugged it out up front. Hamlin pushed his way up to second with about 30 laps left as the adjustments made to his No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota paid off.
“That’s usually the best way to win them, when people don’t expect it and they haven’t seen you all day,” Hamlin said. “We were truly dominant here one year ago, but today we actually were a little worse, but we got a win. That’s very uplifting to me, to win when you don’t have the best race car all day.”
Biffle snatched the lead from pole-sitter Kurt Busch early and led 68 of the 200 laps through the middle portions of the race. Kyle Busch worked his way up from the 24th starting position and had the lead before the midway point. He led for 59 laps.
Kenseth led three times for a total of 17 laps, but he got passed by Edwards with about 35 laps left. Edwards, who won Saturday’s Nationwide Series race here, looked like he had the dominant car as he stayed out front for 29 laps before a final caution period with less than 10 to go.
“We had a really fast car, and I thought we had a shot to win it, but I couldn’t get around him,” Kenseth said. “I just didn’t have enough time. I tried everything I could, and we just couldn’t get around him.”
Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, said a clumsy restart late in the race hurt his chances.
“It was probably one of the best cars we’ve had here at Michigan in a while. It was good to get out there and lead a little bit,” Busch said. “We got bungled up on the second-last restart, and went from second to sixth. I had to slow down a bit, and once I slowed my momentum down the herd was coming, and I just got too far back.”
Busch, who has been involved in a very public feud with Kevin Harvick this season and also made the news for a recent speeding ticket, said the Gibbs team is able to put the distractions aside when it is time to race.
“You get in the race car, you put your helmet on, and you go about your business,” Busch said. “We’ve been able to focus on what needs to be focused on.”
Paul Menard finished fourth after starting from the ninth position. It was the best finish of the season for Menard, and his first top five at MIS.
“We’ve had a rough month, so my guys needed a good run,” Menard said. “We’ve had a fast car for the most part, just been struggling to put together a full race. The guys gave me some good pit stops, but we definitely needed a good run, and we got one today.”
“All of the cars are very close. Track position was huge, and I wish it wasn’t like that,” said Edwards, who maintained the Sprint Cup Series points lead. “If the cars are a tenth of a second apart and you are behind two or three cars ... you can’t make that up. I’m not whining. Denny earned this win, and those are the rules we are under.”
Five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson spun out early in the race, fell two laps down, and never recovered, finishing 27th. He dropped from second to fifth in the points.
Kevin Harvick, who had his No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet clip the wall, recovered to finish 14th and moved into second place in the points race. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon started 31st but had handling issues all afternoon and finished 17th.
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., whose last win came here in 2008, had his day end in disappointment when Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin shoved Earnhardt into the wall late in the race. Earnhardt finished 21st but maintained the third position in the points race.
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.