BY LARRY HAMEL
For the Sun-Times
Denny Hamlin wasn’t positive he made the right call when he rolled the dice by staying out on old tires after a late caution. Quite the opposite.
‘‘Actually, I thought we were screwed,’’ he admitted.
But Hamlin’s gamble paid off when his No. 11 Toyota found a burst of speed in clean air, even on used rubber. He roared away on the restart and hit the jackpot with an improbable win in the first race of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, the MyAFibRisk.com 400, on Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet.
A spinout on Lap 2 had put Hamlin behind the 8-ball, a lap off the lead, but he methodically worked his way through the field and found himself with a golden opportunity when debris on Turns 1 and 2 brought out the caution flag on the 259th lap of the 267-lap race.
That Hamlin stayed on the track while many others hit the pits came more by chance than design.
‘‘With this pit road, we were pitted so far down pit road that [crew chief Dave Rogers] couldn’t see whether I needed to pit or not,’’ Hamlin said. ‘‘[Rogers] told me, ‘You make the decision, but I think track position will be key.’ My spotter said, ‘Come [into the pits],’ but I already was kind of committed to not come, and he said it so quickly, I couldn’t process it quite fast enough.
‘‘Actually, I thought we were screwed. When you start on the second row with old tires, with new tires right on the outside of you, I thought the only chance we had was to get three-wide entering Turn 1 and get some clean air. Once we got that clean air, those were the fastest laps I ran all day.’’
The victory, the 26th of his career and first at Chicagoland Speedway, gave Hamlin automatic entry into the next round of the Chase. He drove the race with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, an injury he suffered playing basketball two weeks ago.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards, who had pitted after the caution, finished second, 0.962 seconds back. With fresh rubber on the restart, Edwards said he was confident he had the race.
‘‘[I had] better tires than anybody,’’ Edwards said. ‘‘I thought, ‘Denny’s mine — he’s a sitting duck.’ But he drove the wheels off that thing. He really hung on to those tires that he had.’’
Hamlin had entered the Chase, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, with perhaps the lowest profile of the four drivers on the JGR powerhouse.
‘‘Whose bracket did I break today?’’ Hamlin kiddingly asked the media. ‘‘Raise your hand, come on. You had us going out in the first round. I’ve been telling people, look at our finishes going into the Chase. We’ve been strong. Everyone else has been getting the headlines, but we’ve been chipping away with some really good finishes lately. Obviously, we were very fortunate with the late-race restart, and we were able to capitalize on it.’’
His confidence buoyed by his victory, Hamlin warned skeptics not to dismiss his chances of winning the Sprint Cup title, noting that ‘‘these Chase tracks set up better for nobody than they do for me.’’
Gibbs had a huge first Chase race overall, with Hamlin in first, Edwards second, Matt Kenseth fifth and Kyle Busch ninth. Hamlin has a free pass into the Contender Round and is second in the Chase points grid. Kenseth is first, Edwards third and Busch fourth. Busch drove a rocket in the early going and actually led the most laps of the race, 121.
Jeff Gordon had the lead at the final restart, but the retiring NASCAR icon got squirrely and slipped all the way back to 14th.
The only real catastrophe for a Chase contender occurred on the 139th lap when Kevin Harvick’s Chevrolet crashed a couple of laps after Jimmie Johnson’s Chevy had bumped into him on the driver’s side during a restart. Harvick wound up 42nd.
Follow me on Twitter @LPHAMEL.