Hamlin back in front
Hamlin moved in front with 29 laps to go, then got a push from Matt Kenseth on the final restart with three laps to go Sunday. Kenseth pushed ahead momentarily before Hamlin got right back in front and went on to his series-best eighth victory of the season.
For Jimmie Johnson, it was more Texas trouble and a bump in his drive for an unprecedented fifth consecutive title while his Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon got into a fight on the track.
Johnson carried a 14-point lead into Texas, but left in second place—33 behind Hamlin. Kevin Harvick is third, 59 points behind Hamlin.
Johnson lost the points lead with a ninth-place finish in a race where he lost ground on two troublesome pit stops. Despite an unusual crew change late in the race, it was too late to get Johnson back ahead of Hamlin and Harvick.
“It was just a long day,” Johnson said. “I had speed in the car. We worked our way forward and had issues on pit road. ... We gave away so much track position from the beginning. It’s tough to get back where we needed to.”
The crew for Gordon took over in the No. 48 pit with Johnson after Gordon was hit and crashed during a caution period.
An angry Gordon hit Jeff Burton with a hard two-handed push after Burton sent Gordon’s car crashing. After getting out of his No. 24 car, Gordon walked from the top to the bottom of the track to confront Burton. Gordon shoved Burton, then took some swings before they were separated by two NASCAR safety officials.
Hamlin won at Texas in April less than three weeks after surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. His first race after the surgery was a 30th-place finish at Phoenix, where the next race is.
Kenseth, a native of Cambridge, finished second on Sunday, and Mark Martin was third. Harvick was sixth.
Greg Biffle led 11 times for 224 of the 334 laps, but finished fifth. The 20th Cup race at the 1½-mile, high-banked Texas track included a record 33 lead changes.
Last fall, Johnson crashed on the third lap in the fall race at Texas and sat in the garage for more than 100 laps while repairs were made. But he had a huge lead then and it wasn’t enough to derail his championship run.
This time, he will be chasing with two races to go.
“I’ve lost plenty of championships in the past. This is racing. It doesn’t come easy,” Johnson said. “You’re not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend.”
On consecutive stops in the first half of the race, Johnson lost ground because of problems changing the front right tire. He had climbed to as high as second before the two stops, and restarted after the second troubled stop—during a caution—in 13th place while Hamlin and Harvick both ran in the top six.
Hamlin and Harvick both also had issues on pit road, though not as frequent as Johnson.
After starting 30th, the lowest of the top three Chase drivers, Hamlin climbed to 19th in the first 43 laps before coming in during a caution. He got blocked in and had to back up to leave his box, falling to 26th for that restart.
But Hamlin was in the top 10 within 30 laps after that, and stayed there the rest of the day.
Harvick was running 11th about 60 laps into the race when another caution came out 15 laps after another one. While most everybody else took two tires, Harvick crew chief Gil Martin opted for four and that cost six spots.
Between the two Johnson stops when there was trouble changing the right front tire, he and Harvick were racing side-by-side for eighth place for several laps. They were still close when another caution came out on lap 152.
That is when Harvick restarted in fifth, a spot ahead of Hamlin, while Johnson slipped back to 13th.
“I feel terrible for the guys we had to make a change,” Johnson said.
Eau Claire native Paul Menard finished 10th, while Janesville’s Travis Kvapil was 41st.
“With everything on the line you’ve got to perform. We have to do our job. ... With the 24 out of the race it was a good opportunity for us to try it. It might be different to our sport in some ways. But man, you watch pro sports and if people aren’t getting the job done you’ve got to pull them out and put somebody else in.”
Gordon’s crew was available after he crashed out during a caution when Martin Truex Jr. hit the wall on lap 192. Then came the scuffle between Gordon and Burton on the backstretch.
Burton took full responsibility for the accident—“100 percent, it was my fault,” he said.
“I don’t blame him for being mad. I would have been mad too,” Burton said. “I don’t have a bit of a problem with what he did.”
Last updated: 3:38 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012