All due congratulations go to Denny Hamlin, who won the STP 400 at Kansas Speedway for his second NASCAR Sprint Cup victory of the year, 19th of his career and the 95th for his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Hamlin ran down race leader Martin Truex Jr. with 35 laps to go in the 267-mile race on the 1.5-mile Kansas track, then overtook his rival with 31 laps remaining.
Hamlin, already a winner this year at Phoenix, led the rest of the way – and in so doing held off a late, desperate attempt at a pass by Truex Jr.
As impressive as Hamlin was, and as solidly as he’s started this season after an uncharacteristically sup-par 2011 campaign, Truex Jr. should be given his share of praise from the STP 400.
Unlike Hamlin and a handful of other top-flight competitors, Truex Jr. was very likely not on anyone’s radar when it came to victory in Kansas – or, to be frank, at any other track this season.
That might have well been an oversight.
Coming into Kansas, Truex Jr. had compiled four consecutive top-10 finishes, two of which, an eighth-place run at Fontana and a sixth at Texas, were out of the top five.
He came into Kansas ranked fourth in points and was the lead driver in what had become, and continues to be, a highly competitive season for the surprisingly resurgent Michael Waltrip Racing team.
Truex Jr. started sixth at Kansas but it wasn’t long before he established himself as the race’s dominant driver.
He ultimately led 173 laps – a figure he hadn’t ever approached – and seemed in firm control until a couple of factors, apparently, did him in.
First, late in the race the weather changed, however briefly, from cloudy and cold to sun-drenched. It was theorized that this altered the handling characteristics of Truex Jr.’s Toyota.
Maybe, but Truex Jr. suggested the problem was something else.
“I don’t know what happened with our last set of tires,” said the 31-year-old driver. “They were terrible. I couldn’t go at all – I was just dead sideways.
“I don’t think it was the sun. We just put on that last set of tires and the car wasn’t anything like it had been all day. It was just loose, loose, loose.
“We lost the lead and once that happens, it’s so hard to get it back. I was running just about where Denny was, but when you’re that close, it’s just about impossible to pass him.”
It wasn’t that Truex Jr. didn’t make an effort. With three laps remaining he made a bold move to the inside of the track in an effort to pass Hamlin.
However, the move came up short and Truex Jr. made a precarious slide to the high side of the track behind Hamlin.
There was nothing else he could do.
“I was a little faster than Denny but he was running against the wall right where he needed to be,” Truex Jr. said. “I was just trying to gain some ground.
“It was a desperation, last-ditch effort. I was just trying something. I’d like to try it again. I drove as hard as I could.”
Truex Jr. admitted he was very disappointed to lose after such a dominating performance, which amounted to his fifth consecutive run among the top 10.
He hasn’t won since the spring race at Dover in 2007 when he was with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
However, he is likely somewhat consoled by the fact that he’s now second in points, 15 behind Greg Biffle, who finished fifth at Kansas for his sixth top-10 run of the year – which includes a victory at Texas.
Truex Jr. admitted he’s pleased with the effort. But he also suggested that some of his goals, and those of MWR, have yet to be reached.
As an example, he noted that while his performance was suitable, those of his teammates, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer, were not.
Both fell victim to engine failure, a malady that hasn’t played a significant role in Sprint Cup races for several years, especially since the development of “bulletproof” powerplants.
However, at Kansas, at least eight teams were struck with engine woes.
“Winning certainly helps and that’ s what we’re here to do,” he said. “But come September we want to be in the Chase and we want to go for a championship, too.
“Our other two cars didn’t run as well as we wanted them to today and that’s probably the first time this year that our cars have run that different.”
Truex Jr. referred to the fourth race of the season, at Bristol, where MWR cars finished third through fifth to trigger the team’s competitive resurgence.
“We’ll look into what happened today a little bit and get a little bit smarter and a little bit better,” he said. “I think if we push each other to be the best team in the series, well, that will put all our Toyotas up front.”
Of the MWR trio of teams, only those of Truex Jr. and Bowyer can win a championship. Martin runs a limited schedule and Brian Vickers will replace him in eight races.
At present Truex Jr.’s unexpectedly strong performances through the first eight races of the season have made him the team’s leading contender to make the Chase – and, perhaps, win a championship.
Meanwhile, at Kansas, more news was made by a team other than Gibbs and Waltrip.
Hendrick Motorsports’ bid to win its 200th Sprint Cup race fell short once again.
Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson notched the 199th win at Kansas last fall. He came close to a repeat this year but had to settle for a third-place finish.
Fourteen races have now passed since Hendrick’s last victory. It will get another chance this weekend at Richmond.
Now, it should be noted that three of four Hendrick drivers finished among the top 10 at Kansas – Johnson, Kasey Kahne, who, for the second week in a row shook off bad luck to finish sixth – and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who took seventh.
Jeff Gordon was one of those who fell victim to engine failure and finished 21st.