It was typical Talladega on a brilliant Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.
While the Aaron’s 499 Sprint Cup race didn’t feature the dreaded Big One, several multicar collisions kept the drivers on edge before Denny Hamlin snapped a slump by winning his first race of the season and first of his 10-year career on a restrictor-plate track.
Hamlin won his 24th Sprint Cup race in his 300th career start under caution in a Toyota, while Greg Biffle, who led the most laps, was second in a Ford. Clint Bowyer of Emporia was third in a Toyota, and he’ll come to Kansas Speedway for Saturday night’s 5-hour Energy 400 with some momentum for his 300th career start.
Most importantly, the win all but guarantees Hamlin a spot in the new format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup a year after he missed the post-season playoff because he was sidelined for four races with a back injury.
“Can you guarantee that we’re in the Chase?” asked Hamlin, the eighth different winner in 10 races this season.
Hamlin, 33, hadn’t posted a top five finish since he was runner-up in the season-opening Daytona 500, the other restrictor-plate track on the circuit.
“We’ve been preaching and beating up on how we were on all the other race tracks coming into this one,” Hamlin said of a rough start to the season. “You know this one is an equalizer. You have as good a shot as anyone. You have to take advantage on these moments and these type of race tracks when you feel you’re a little off on the others.
“We were able to do that today, and it buys us some time to get our program where it needs to be for September when it really counts.”
Hamlin, who missed the fifth race of the season at California due to an eye injury, had finished no better than 13th in the last four races while struggling to adjust to the new rules package in the Gen-6 car for this year.
“I wasn’t really worried,” Hamlin said, “but you get a little more panicked when it’s a win-a-race-and-you’re in, and you see all these guys logging wins, wins, wins, and the next thing you know, we’re running out of Chase spots.
“Now we can be a little bit more relaxed like 2010 and 2012 when we won some races and got to run the whole summer months trying different things and improving our cars and made our Chase runs. We had the entire summer to not worry about fighting to get into the Chase, and hopefully that pays off for us again.”
Hamlin led just 12 laps and took the lead for good from Kevin Harvick on a restart with two laps to go after Carl Edwards of Columbia created a caution when his Ford blew a tire and wrecked his car as well as three others. A caution for debris was signaled on the last lap, but the leaders had already cleared any danger, so the race finished under yellow.
Former Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski triggered two multicar wrecks and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson set another multi-car collision into motion with 14 laps to go.
Thirteen laps into the race, Keselowski cut in front of Danica Patrick for the lead, but he wasn’t clear of her, and Patrick’s nose sent Keselowski careening across the track and into the infield. By time Keseleowski’s car was repaired, he was six laps down, and he seemed to try to make up all six laps in one maneuver.
Keselowski got loose in turn four of the 136th lap, and slid into Trevor Bayne, sparking a chain reaction of 12 cars, taking Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart off the track.
“He was driving, really, really, aggressively to try to get back up there,” Kenseth said. “I didn’t realize he was that many laps down so I’m not sure what the strategy was there if it was the other way around, and it was anybody except for him, we’d all be getting lectured ”
Gordon, still the series points leader, was just as angry with Keselowski.
“I had seen him for several laps driving over his head being pretty aggressive,” Gordon said. “I knew he was laps down, but he wasn’t doing anybody any favors, nor himself. Somebody might not have given him an inch there, but he was certainly taking probably more than he should have been in the situation he was in.”
With 14 laps to go, Johnson spun out similar to Keselowski. He clipped Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and took Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and defending race champion David Ragan off the track.
“It’s Talladega,” Logano said. “You’re coming to this race almost expecting something like that to happen.”