Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR NOTEBOOK: Hamlin Runs Third at Richmond But Still Has Work to Do

By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

RICHMOND, Va. — A third-place finish at Richmond International Raceway on Sunday was little consolation for Virginia native Denny Hamlin, who craves victory at his home track but knows his cars aren’t yet fast enough to outrun the best in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

“Yeah, it was about as good as we had,” Hamlin said. “You know, we just didn’t have the speed that the other cars had. But we optimized our day. It’s the best we could do. We finished right where we should have.”

Hamlin thought he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch might have the opportunity to steal a win when Toyota Owners 400 race winner Joey Logano and runner-up Brad Keselowski stayed out on old tires under caution on Lap 368 of 400. A subsequent caution on Lap 377, however, gave Logano and Keselowski another chance to come to pit road and put the cars back on equal footing.

“There was a moment where the two Penske cars stayed out, and we pitted, and that’s where I thought, ‘OK, this could be the chance that we have to steal it,” Hamlin said.

“But then we had another caution, and then they came in and pitted with us. We knew we had to do something different to beat those guys. We weren’t going to be able to beat them straight up. We had to either beat them off pit road, or we had to be on a different tire strategy.

“And the only way to be on a different tire strategy is we were going to have to hope they didn’t pit, and they didn’t, and my eyes got really big at that moment thinking, ‘This could be our chance to level the playing field and race these guys.’ But we had another caution, and it kind of screwed all that up.”

Just 65 laps into Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scraped the Turn 3 wall while racing hard with Denny Hamlin.

But Stenhouse recovered to finish fourth at the .75-mile short track, matching his best result of the season, thanks in large part to a decision to stay out on older tires for the final restart on Lap 382.

Of six drivers whose crew chiefs made that call, Stenhouse fared best, holding off Kevin Harvick during an intense 10-lap battle for position.

“Yeah, I made a lot of work for us there, getting in the fence later in that first stage and really we were fighting back all day from there,” Stenhouse said. “Had a really good car on the long run, but we bent the splitter bar down. Was on the splitter for five or six laps, so restarts, I was just trying to keep as best track position as I could, and once we got to Lap 6 or 7, my car kind of came back around to me.

“It was a no brainer there to stay out that last caution. I was glad it came out, because I thought we missed the opportunity the run before to stay out. It worked out perfect. Our Fifth/Third Ford and the guys never gave up, worked hard, and this track is a lot of fun in the sun. It’s hot in the car, hot in the stands, so I appreciate everybody coming out, and it’s nice to have I think four Fords in the top five, so it was cool.”

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France took questions from reporters before Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway, and naturally enough, the discussion centered around Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement on Tuesday that he will retire from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the season.

“He’s meant a lot to this sport in many ways, on and off the track — not just his popularity, but carrying on the Earnhardt name in such a good way,” France said. “He was always competitive on the track, always raced at a high level, and always worked with NASCAR to make the sport better, just like his father did.”

France went on to note the cyclical nature of the sport and the recent influx of talented 20-somethings who have started to make their mark in NASCAR racing, following the recent exits of veterans Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards.

“It’s really not uncommon to see three, four or five of your top drivers deciding to exit around the same time,” France said. “The good news is the talent pool that is coming is deep. We’re excited about that.

“I’ve said this a long time ago: careers are not going to last as long as they did in previous decades of NASCAR. The demands are high, the opportunity to leave a race car and do something else because of the financial situation they are fortunate enough to be in allows them to pick and choose their careers a little bit differently.