Hamlin scores career first NASCAR Cup road course win at Watkins Glen

Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 7, 2016 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International on August 7, 2016 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Getty Images)

Sunday it was Denny Hamlin’s turn to celebrate. Hamlin led the final 10 laps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Cheez-It 355 and held off a hard charging Martin Truex Jr. to score his first Cup win on a road course during an eventful day at Watkins Glen International.

Truex was spun on the final corner by Brad Keselowski but recovered to finish seventh.  The win for Hamlin comes two months after he lost a road course race at Sonoma on the final corner when he was bumped aside by winner Tony Stewart.  Prior to Sunday, Hamlin had never led a lap at Watkins Glen.

“ I can’t tell you how disappointed I was we didn’t win the first one,” Hamlin said. “I just tried the best I could and overshot the corner and I didn’t want to do it this time and so I probably under drove and let those guys be a little closer than I should’ve. But, hated to see the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) turned around down there.”

Truex expressed his displeasure with Keselowski on the cool down lap. Truex bumped the car of Keselowski several times.  After the driver’s climbed from their cars, Keselowski went to Truex on pit road and made amends.

“It was obviously my fault when you run into the back of somebody,” Keselowski said. “I saw the 11 was blocking low and thought the 78 would get in behind and rub up the 11 and I wanted to be outside to make a cross-over and see if I couldn’t get both. At the last minute he came back up and I was already committed. I didn’t think he would come back up.

“You make a commitment before you know what is going to happen and I made a commitment and it didn’t work out. He got the bad end of it. I hit him from behind and that is my fault. Luckily with the way this Chase is, he probably won’t want to hear it, but it doesn’t hurt him too bad.”

Both Truex and Keselowski have wins this season and are locked into the Chase, making the sting of losing out on second place a bit easier for Truex.

“Yeah, definitely unfortunate,” Truex said. “I wish we could’ve seen what would’ve happened when we got to the start finish line. I felt like I maybe had the 11 (Denny Hamlin) squared up a little bit off (turn) 11 and maybe could’ve drag raced him to the line but it’d have been fun to see but it was all not to be with getting hit in the left rear. It’s unfortunate, but hard racing at the end, all of us going for a win and all of us locked in the Chase it’s – I guess he (Brad Keselowski) kind of races with that mentality that hey, it doesn’t really matter where we finish or if we finish so just have to be mindful of that when we’re around him for the rest of the time. “

The win for Hamlin, was his second of the season, the first coming in this year’s Daytona 500. It was also the 28th of his career, and marked the second consecutive year the winner of the Daytona 500 went onto win at Watkins Glen. It almost was over before it started however. After the race Hamlin , who missed a race at Bristol with neck spasms last season,  said he almost didn’t race Sunday.

“I just woke up with back spasms this morning,” Hamlin said. “Just hits me every three or four months or so. I just wake up and can’t move. Really doubted being in the racecar today to be honest with you.”

Last year’s race winner Joey Logano held on for second with a heavily damaged car, followed by Keselowski, Allmendinger, and Tony Stewart fifth.

“Overall our car was really good today,” Logano said.  “Driver shot himself in the foot a little bit with getting some damage in the Bus Stop when we were working our way back through the field.  Ripped the splitter up.  That was kind of the beginning of the end.  Really hurt our racecar through the fast parts of the racetrack, so through the esses, the Carrousel, a little bit in 11.  Didn’t hurt us in the Bus Stop, that’s where we were the fastest car. We got ourselves in position to win the race, but I didn’t have the speed in the racecar to make it happen.  It wasn’t anyone’s fault but mine.  A little mad at that.”

Many favorites saw their day end early or their chance at victory slip away. Pole sitter Carl Edwards led 25 laps early in the race but was penalized for a tire outside his pit box during his first pit stop.  He was forced back in for a driver through penalty and never fully recovered finishing 15th.

Third place finisher Keselowski led the most laps on the day, 28, and had the lead late, but a furious battle with Kyle Busch on a restart ten laps from the end led to both going wide in turn 1 and opening the door for Hamlin.  Hamlin would hold the lead through the races eighth and final caution, for a four car crash that involved Kevin Harvick and last week’s Pocono winner Chris Buescher.  NASCAR was forced to stop the race for the second time to clear the track and after 16 minutes, the field was restarted with four laps to go.  Over the final laps the top three cars were nose to tail with Hamlin leading, Truex second and Keselowski third.  On the final corner of the final lap, Keselowski got into Truex sending him spinning as Hamlin raced to the win.

The first red flag of 13 minutes came out just after the races second caution of the day on lap 47 for debris. On the restart lap as Logano took the lead, a multi-car crash erupted in the area of the track known as the carousel, turn 5.  Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got loose and spun across the track, into the wall and back out across the track where Jimmie Johnson careened into him. Both drivers were okay, but NASCAR was forced to stop the race for cleanup.

Both driver’s days were done. Johnson was scored 40th, and with a DNF, his fourth in the last nine races.  Fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon, substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his 800th career start Sunday.  He suffered damage early on after contact with Austin Dillon in the inner loop but recovered to finish 14th.

Chris Buescher’s run to be inside the top 30 in points to secure a spot in the Chase with his crash that resulted in the second red flag.  Just prior to the red flag, Buescher tried to get his damaged car moving again, but NASCAR officials told him he would have to get out. He finally relented and the car was towed to the garage. After being cleared in the infield care center, Buescher rushed back to the pits and climbed back in his car. When the yellow was displayed the crew was able to repair the car and Buescher finished the race and in 30th.

“From where I was, we barely caught the wall on the inside,” Buescher said.  “Basically the splitter hooked up in the mud.  I know when I ran off course, trying to avoid the 4 (Harvick), it swung all kinds of grass over the car.  I knew what the issue was.  I was just trying to get them to push. We’re sitting downhill.  Splitter is caked up under mud.  Actually broke it loose.  It was pretty packed.  My hope was that we could be pushed backwards.  They don’t have any straps or anything to be able to hook to the back.  Basically they’re depending on being able to push the back bumper to get you moving.  We didn’t have that opportunity.

“I get it.  I mean, I get why they made me get out.  I was just really frustrated and tried really hard to stay in it so we could keep rolling without losing any spots.”

Fortunately for Buescher his nearest rival for the 3th place points spot, David Ragan, was also involved in the same accident, but was not able to return to the race.  Buescher finished 30th, Ragan, 33rd and Buescher was able to make up one point and is now four markers out of the 30th spot in points.

Kyle Busch was sixth, Jamie McMurray seventh followed by Truex who recovered for eighth; Trevor Bayne ninth and Matt Kenseth 10th. The full results can be found here.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup series takes a week off before heading to Bristol Motor Speedway in two weeks.  The Bristol Night Race will be on Saturday August 20th with live coverage on the NBC Sports Network at 8:00 p.m. ET.

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