TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin has dealt with a run of circumstantial bad luck over the last year.
He got tangled up with Joey Logano at Fontana, Calif., last season, suffering a broken vertebra in his lower back and forcing him to miss the next four races. A sinus infection took him out of the Fontana race this season.
So consider his victory in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Sunday afternoon a bit of cosmic payback. He hit the lottery by avoiding the usual crash-fest at Talladega.
“A win like this makes you forget about all these things,” Hamlin said, reflecting on the good and the bad and, most importantly, a fortuitous flag fluttering at Talladega Superspeedway.
Hamlin won under a last-lap caution following an incident behind the lead pack. Justin Allgaier’s car lost a piece of its bumper, forcing NASCAR officials to throw the caution instead of risking a green-flag finish with debris on the track.
It cut short a two-lap restart, following a spin by Carl Edwards, and ruined any plans by Greg Biffle of Vancouver, Wash., and Clint Bowyer to make a run at Hamlin on the final lap.
“It’s frustrating because of the simple fact that we both felt we had the opportunity to pounce,” Bowyer said. “NASCAR did the right thing. You can’t put people in danger.”
Biffle and Bowyer hung tight when they saw smoke in their rear-view mirror, both figuring that it was too early to make a run at Hamlin. It’s easy to get bounced back in a hurry if you go at the wrong time. Unfortunately for them, they never got that opportunity.
“I didn’t want to pass too early. I was going to be the lone soldier on the outside lane,” Biffle said. “I was setting up to go by him and I never got the chance.”
This was Hamlin’s first points-race victory at a restrictor-plate track and virtually assures him a spot in the Chase after failing to qualify last season. He becomes the eighth driver to win a race this season, marking the halfway point of bids for the 16-driver field in the 10-race playoff format.
“He needed it so bad,” said J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing. “We were really happy for him to win the race today.”
Hamlin was too, obviously, noting a few times that he no longer had to hit “the panic button.”
“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, so you see all these guys logging wins, wins, wins, and the next thing you know they’re running out of Chase spots,” he said.
The crowd did get a flavor of that with a number of metal-crunching wrecks, reflecting just another typical day at the biggest track on the NASCAR schedule, where speeds approaching 200 mph and the potential for 4-wide racing always add an element of unpredictability.
On Sunday, there was also a dubious decision by Brad Keselowski to drive aggressively among the pack leaders late in the race when he was six laps down. Keselowski got loose with 51 laps remaining, triggering a 14-car accident that took out a number of prominent drivers, including Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.
Keselowski said he was trying to get some laps back under the premise that a number of cautions would allow him to crawl his way to the lead pack again.
Nobody was buying that.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing. It looked like he just spun out in front of us and had nowhere to go,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think you’re going to get six laps back. If it was the other way around, we’d be getting lectured, I know that.”