FORT WORTH, Tex. – Denny Hamlin did almost everything right on Sunday afternoon.
Despite his best efforts, however, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota left Texas Motor Speedway in a good-sized hole.
Hamlin started Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 from the front row beside pole winner Kurt Busch. He led the first 46 laps, 65 overall. Hamlin was in the top spot for the final restart on lap 289 and rolled home in third place behind winner Kevin Harvick and runner-up Martin Truex, Jr., scoring 47 points for his efforts.
But with Harvick and Truex both clinching spots in the Nov. 19 Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and with Kyle Busch, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate having done the same last week at Martinsville, Hamlin has two options as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Phoenix for next Sunday’s final event in the Playoff’s Round of 8.
If Hamlin hopes to compete for a title at Homestead, he either must win the race or make up a 19-point deficit to fourth-place Brad Keselowski.
“Yeah, we probably need to win, most likely, which is amazing,” Hamlin said. “It’s the second year in a row, the third round, where I average inside a top five-finish, and that ain’t going to be good enough. It needs to be better.
“But it’s about winning races. That’s what we’ll go next week and try to do.”
Brad Keselowski Recovers Nicely To Stay Above Playoff Cut Line
In an instant, Brad Keselowski was a lap down.
Moments after the start of Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, before the lead drivers had completed the first two corners, Kyle Busch’s Toyota washed up the track into Keselowski’s Ford and cut a tire on the Team Penske machine.
The resulting unscheduled pit stop left Keselowski a lap down, but he and the team kept their heads on straight. Keselowski got the lap back under the second caution as the highest-scored lapped car, and by the end of the second stage, he was 14th.
Throughout the rest of the race, Keselowski gained ground. On lap 334, he took the checkered flag in fifth place to hold fourth in the series standings and build a 19-point edge over Denny Hamlin in fifth.
Next Sunday at Phoenix, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will be cut from eight drivers to four, and Keselowski already has a leg up on the final available spot in the Championship 4 round.
“Something happened on Lap 1, and basically we started the race last and a lap-and-a-half down,” Keselowski said. “That cost us a bunch of stage points, but we rallied with a solid effort to get back to fifth. I’m happy for that.”
Happy, but not overly confident with the 19-point margin.
“We’ll take it,” Keselowski said. “I still want more. I hate to give up those stage points. Nineteen points isn’t terrible for a cushion.
“We’ll need to go and have a solid race at Phoenix next week and hope none of the other guys win. It’s doable, but it’s going to be a nail-biter next week for sure.”
Jimmie Johnson Endured A Crushing Day At Texas
Jimmie Johnson has seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships. He has seven victories at Texas Motor Speedway.
None of that mattered in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, when Johnson’s race – and likely his hopes for a record eighth title – went south in a hurry.
On lap 65 of 334, after the first round of green-flag pit stops, Johnson brought his No. 48 Chevrolet back to pit road because of a vibration. He lost two laps in the process.
Rather than take a wave-around under caution at the end of the first stage, crew chief Chad Knaus called Johnson to pit road, and he remained two laps down. On lap 131, he lost another circuit on the track when race leader Kyle Larson passed him.
Johnson finished 27th, three laps down, and dropped to eighth in the series standings, 51 points behind Brad Keselowski in fourth. Nothing short of a victory next Sunday at Phoenix will earn Johnson a place in the Championship 4 finale at Homestead.
“We’ve got to figure something out,” Johnson said. “Kansas (the Round of 12 finale) was a lot like this. It was just extremely difficult to drive the car and carry entry speed. And then we had a loose wheel and then contact on a restart. We started off in a hole and just kept digging a deeper one as we went.
“I’m definitely disappointed. And I honestly just feel bad for my team. These guys are working so hard. And to work this hard and not see any speed go back in the car and have bad results, as the last three weeks have been, is pretty disappointing.”