Joe Gibbs gave Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Carl Edwards a theoretical afternoon off, but Denny Hamlin worked a little more than three hours of overtime and secured himself a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Round of 8.
Hamlin overcame an early pit road penalty and beat Kurt Busch to the line to garner the final transfer spot. The points tally forced a tie with Austin Dillon, but Hamlin got the nod for achieving the highest finishing position in the Round of 12.
Hamlin’s teammates had a different agenda, though.
On the final pace lap, the JGR trio dropped to the back of the field and rode together for a majority of the race. It was a planned strategy to insulate themselves from a potential Talladega “Big One” – and that plan came together well.
Hamlin knew he was going to be on his own, in a race where teammates can typically serve as a strong asset, but understood that self-preservation served the greater good of the organization.
“Yeah, I knew they were (going to ride in the back), but they had to do what they had to do to get in,” he said. “You can’t sacrifice those three cars to try to get the last one in. You’ve got to know you’ve got in your hand three aces. You can’t try to get the fourth and risk it, so I knew I was going to be out there alone, but I found the guys that I worked with and stuck with them, and it all worked out.”
So how hard was it for a race car driver not to race?
Matt Kenseth was the highest secured JGR driver in the standings but knew the strategy had Homestead written all over it.
“It goes against everything you ever want to do as a race car driver,” he said. “You want to go try to win races, so I think it’s just kind of an unintended consequence of the way – being the cutoff race and the way the Chase works. You can’t afford to go up there and get wrecked and not have a chance to race for a championship, so it was just kind of the cards we were dealt and we had to play them. I don’t think any of us had any fun and none of us enjoyed, but it was just what we had to do to make sure we got to Martinsville and trying to race four more weeks and hopefully have a shot at the four of us trying to race for a championship.”
The next three races will set the stage for the season finale, but Talladega may just serve as a key for a Joe Gibbs Racing team to leave Miami a Champion.
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