Denny Hamlin scored his first win of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, and first with new crew chief Darian Grubb, Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. Hamlin had one in the entire 2011 season.
Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were the leading contenders in the late stages of the race, and Harvick, who was working to live up to his moniker of “the closer,” attempted to hunt Hamlin down. Harvick, however, ran out of fuel with one lap remaining and coasted home to second behind the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.
The win moves Hamlin into the early lead in the point standings, as well. It's early days yet in the 2012 season, but Hamlin didn't underestimate how important the win was.
“If you'd have asked me at the beginning of the day, I just hoped for a top-15 finish,” Hamlin said. “Someone asked me earlier if I knew where Victory Lane was, as this is not my type of track. We've never hit our stride this early, so this bodes well for the rest of the year.”
Greg Biffle finished third, ahead of Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Johnson, who entered the race 49th in the point standings following his 25-point penalty post-Daytona, needed a good result for his Hendrick Motorsports team. Until his appeal is held, Johnson can still run with crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec.
“We were concerned because I rarely get good fuel mileage here,” Johnson said. “It's a needed points day and we still fought back.”
Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, polesitter Mark Martin and Joey Logano completed the top 10.
It was a rough day for Tony Stewart, who finished outside the top-20 after shutting his engine off under a caution to save fuel, and the car not restarting. The issue was linked to the new ECU box, one of the first issues to hit in a race as the series has switched to fuel injection in 2012.
“I shut the car off like at Daytona, it never re-fired,” Stewart said. “I honestly don't know – it's not my department. I turned the switch back on and it never re-fired.”
Also of note, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman had a dust-up late in the race. Edwards' car washed up the road and contacted Newman, spinning Stewart's teammate into the wall. Edwards finished 17th after running out of fuel on the last lap, with Newman, in a backup car to begin with, 21st.
“We were just racing hard,” Edwards said. “He drove on the outside and I got loose. I feel bad, as that was their second car this weekend. Sometimes racing that hard, and close, ends hard.”
“I'm 99 percent sure he didn't do it on purpose,” said Newman, in a subtle dig at Edwards' car number, 99. “But I trusted him and now he can't trust me. There's a lot to be had and lost. We lost a lot today. It wasn't deliberate. But we know plenty of times what goes around comes around.”
Hamlin leads Biffle by six, Harvick by eight and Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth – who finished 13th – by 10 in the point standings. Johnson made an 11-position gain, albeit from 49th to 38th.
The series resumes next Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, sight of Edwards' only 2011 win and by default, his most recent.
Results - 312 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota 2h50m35.000s
2. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 7.315s
3. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 8.176s
4. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 10.152s
5. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 11.324s
6. Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota + 11.654s
7. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 11.909s
8. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 14.892s
9. Mark Martin Waltrip Toyota + 17.812s
10. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 18.920s
11. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 19.434s
12. Aric Almirola Petty Ford + 19.682s
13. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 19.996s
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 22.377s
15. Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet + 22.578s
16. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 24.037s
17. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 25.748s
18. AJ Allmendinger Penske Dodge + 1 lap
19. Travis Kvapil BK Toyota + 1 lap
20. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 1 lap
21. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 2 laps
22. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 2 laps
23. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 3 laps
24. Mike Bliss FAS Lane Ford + 3 laps
25. David Ragan Front Row Ford + 3 laps
26. JJ Yeley Robinson-Blakeney Toyota + 3 laps
27. Brendan Gaughan Childress Chevrolet + 4 laps
28. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 4 laps
29. David Stremme Inception Toyota + 6 laps
30. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota + 6 laps
31. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 9 laps
Did not finish:
Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford 295 laps
Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet 291 laps
Kasey Kahne Hendrick Chevrolet 274 laps
Landon Cassill BK Toyota 272 laps
David Reutimann Baldwin Chevrolet 248 laps
Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet 212 laps
Josh Wise Front Row Ford 110 laps
Casey Mears Germain Ford 109 laps
Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 62 laps
Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge 33 laps
Scott Riggs R3 Chevrolet 29 laps
Michael McDowell Parsons Ford 8 laps