Heading into Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Toyota hadn’t won a race since the beginning of May of 2013 at Talladega. Denny Hamlin won that race, as he did on Sunday.
In the caution-filled race at Martinsville, Hamlin called his shot prior to the race on the paperclip. When asked who was the favorite in the garage area, Hamlin’s response was: “Me.”
The No. 11 Camry led 91 laps on the afternoon, but had to hold off a hard-charging Brad Keselowski for the final 20 laps. This was Hamlin’s first win at Martinsville since 2010.
“It’s just great race cars and a great organization that gives me cars able to do,” Hamlin said in victory lane. “We just weren’t going to be denied today. Hats off to Brad, he had an option and chose the latter.”
Keselowski has never performed to his potential at Martinsville until Sunday’s race. He finished second and had the opportunity to pass Hamlin in Turn 4 on the final lap. The two drivers have a history with one another, but he chose to not go back to those roots and took home a second-place finish after winning last week in Fontana.
“I really wanted that clock,” Keselowski said in displeasure of finishing second. “Some runs we were good on the short run, and some runs we were good on the long runs, just not good at the right time. I wish we had five or ten more laps to try things out, but it’s out best finish at this track.”
Polesitter Joey Logano led 108 out of 500 laps on Sunday. However, it was a Lap 219 incident with Michael Annett while battling for fifth that was a major setback for the No. 22 car. He dropped back into the mid-20s, but rebounded to a third-place finish.
The rest of the top five included Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan. It was Ragan’s best finish since driving the No. 18 and filling in for the injured Kyle Busch. The top 5 is also his first since 2011, where he finished fourth at Richmond in September.
On a Lap 462 caution, Jeff Gordon came in as the race leader. He left the pits in the third position. However, the No. 24 was too fast on pit road and had to restart in the 22nd position, last on the lead lap. Gordon ran well toward the conclusion of the race, and drove his Chevy up into a ninth-place finish.
Danica Patrick placed seventh, which was one position shy of her best-career finish. Martin Truex, Jr. also finished sixth on the afternoon and has finished in the top-10 in all six races thus far this season.
“It feels good, and I would say that we’ve had a couple races this year that could have gone different,” Patrick said after a hard fought race. “We’ve had some technical issues, but it is just so much fun to be here. It is like a disaster to be off and struggling with the car, and its really fun to have a strong car.
Going into Sunday’s race at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson was seemingly the master of the .526-mile short track, with eight career wins. But on Sunday, it was anything but perfect. Johnson spent a majority of the afternoon battling a loose condition that even resulted in a heated radio conversation between crew chief Chad Knaus and he. The No. 48 finished a disappointing 35th.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spent much of Sunday afternoon battling a broken shifter. It all started on Lap 92,during a pit stop, where the No. 88 was brought down pit-road to fix the issue. Less than 100 laps later, the back-up shifter broke. He then got involved in the 10th caution of the race, as did David Ragan, Paul Menard, Justin Allgaier and Casey Mears. Earnhardt finished a heartbreaking 36th, 47 laps down after busting the radiator on his Chevrolet.
“We had a real bad vibration about 30 laps into the race and it just kept breaking the shifter,” Earnhardt told FOX Sports while sitting in the garage. “It vibrates so bad that it breaks the shifter right off.”
One debut that didn’t go as planned was Chase Elliott. Elliott made his first career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at one of the toughest tracks. On a Lap 60 restart, the No. 25 car and the No. 55 of Brett Moffitt, who was also making his Martinsville debut, got together. The Georgia native had to replace a radiator after the incident and he had to go behind the wall. The end result on the day for Elliott was 38th, 73 laps behind Hamlin.
Late on Saturday afternoon, it was announced that Kyle Larson was brought back to Charlotte for tests after fainting at a fan appearance. Early Sunday morning, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates announced that Regan Smith would fill in for the second year driver. Larson was scheduled to start seventh at Martinsville but he will have to wait until late October to race at the half-mile. Smith finished a solid 16th on Sunday after spinning out to cause a caution at one point.