TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Joe Gibbs Racing used meticulous strategy when Denny Hamlin won the season-opening Daytona 500. To continue his championship chances, he was on his own.
JGR used a split plan Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, where three drivers lagged at the back of the field all day as Hamlin raced at the front to avoid elimination in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
His frantic third-place finish with a last-gasp pass of Kurt Busch at the finish line put him in a tie with Austin Dillon for the eighth and final spot in the third round of the playoffs. The berth went to Hamlin on a tiebreaker, and JGR got all four of its cars into the next segment. Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch finished 28th, 29th and 30th at Talladega behind a conservative approach that put four Toyotas into the Chase’s final eight.
Hamlin knew he was on his own Sunday.
“It was very tough in there not having any teammates,” he said. “They had to do what they had to do to get in. You can’t sacrifice those three cars to try to get the last one in.
“You’ve got to know you’ve got in your hand three aces. You can’t try to get the fourth and risk it, so I knew I was going to be out there alone.”
It was a gut-wrenching race for car owner Joe Gibbs, who celebrated his first title in 10 years last season with Busch and wants as many chances as possible to repeat the win next month. The team had two cars eliminated from contention in this race a year ago, but now Gibbs has 50 percent of the final field.
“They’ve got more to lose than I do, I guess, they’ve got four,” said Roger Penske, who has only Talladega winner Joey Logano in the third round. Brad Keselowski was eliminated Sunday by an engine failure and Ford has just one slot.
But Penske felt fine with his singular chance, particularly after title favorite Martin Truex Jr. was knocked out Sunday with his own engine failure. Truex had won two races in the first round of the playoffs and would have given Toyota five spots had he advanced.
“Truex was a real threat to everyone, and the fact that he’s not in, Brad, you take a couple of guys out that can really win … it’s a level playing field,” Penske said. “We got some Toyotas, got some Chevys, we got a Ford. We’re satisfied where we are.”
So is JGR.
Hamlin had to edge Kurt Busch by .006 seconds for third place to claim that final point. He told his team not to give him points updates, and that lack of knowledge forced him to scramble through the final turn as he was undecided on how aggressive he needed to be.
“I wasn’t sure whether I needed to finish third,” he said. “I told them I didn’t want points updates. But that’s almost when I probably should have got one to figure out what I was going to do. (Dillon) is in the middle of the pack. He’s fighting and getting positions. He could change two positions in the last hundred yards.
“So you can’t really predict it. I knew I just had to try to finish as good as I could.”
With Truex and Keselowski out of the playoffs before the checkered flag, the suspense came down to final finishing order. Logano was not in a must-win situation, but the victory didn’t hurt.
Dillon, on a frantic dash during two overtime laps to gain as many spots as possible, called the outcome “heartbreaking.”
“It sure stinks to lose it on a tiebreaker,” Dillon said.
Also eliminated Sunday was Chase Elliott. Advancing are: Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Edwards, Logano and Hamlin. Stewart-Haas Racing has Kurt Busch and Harvick — but the two had a heated exchange after the race over alleged contact on the last lap — while Hendrick Motorsports has Johnson for three Chevrolets in the field. Logano is the only Ford driver.
The race was different from the spring stop in Alabama, when 35 cars were involved in at least one accident and two cars went airborne. And last year, it appeared that Harvick intentionally caused an accident on an overtime restart to help his championship chances.
But for mile after mile Sunday, the drivers behaved.
The only glitches came in a harried sequence early in the race in which three championship contenders had uncharacteristic gaffes within minutes of each other. First Logano left pit road with a jack wedged under his Ford, and he had to return to pit road to have it removed. Hamlin was later flagged for speeding, then Truex lost an engine.
Keselowski’s engine went with 43 laps remaining after he’d battled climbing temperatures on his car because of debris on his front grille.