By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
JOLIET, Ill. – In the theater, using the expression “Break a leg” is a way to wish an actor good luck on opening night.
Twelve days before Sunday’s opening Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, Denny Hamlin tore the ACL in his right leg playing basketball.
Late in the myAFibRisk.com 400 at the 1.5-mile track, Hamlin found his good fortune in the form of a serendipitous pit call on the part of crew chief Dave Rogers.
Staying out on old tires, Hamlin grabbed the lead moments after a restart with five laps left and streaked away to a .963-second victory over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Carl Edwards, who surged from sixth to second during that restart on Lap 263 of 267.
Hamlin saw an opening as the cars roared toward Turn 1 on the restart.
“It was ballsy, but I’d been stuck so many times three-wide in the middle,” Hamlin said of the winning move. “The front cars almost have a disadvantage to the back cars the way it all plays out.
“We got a great restart, and I just held it wide open through (Turns) 1 and 2, and it stuck. We were able to get in that clean air and take off.”
Remarkably, Hamlin won from the 29th starting position, rallying from a spin on Lap 2 that left him a lap down. Hamlin didn’t get back on the lead lap until he took advantage of a wave-around before a restart on Lap 129.
“Luckily, that one caution (for debris on the backstretch on Lap 122) came out that allowed us to get the wave-around and get back on the lead lap,” Hamlin said. “We had a fast car, and that was the most important thing. We stretched out there at the end even with no tires.
Hamlin’s first victory at Chicagoland, his second of the season and the 16th of his career ensured the driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota will advance from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round of the Chase, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to New Hampshire and the second race of the postseason.
Reigning champion Kevin Harvick wasn’t as fortunate. The driver who vowed to pound the JGR drivers into the ground three days before the Chase began instead pounded the Turn 3 wall with the rear of his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet after contact with Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevy during a Lap 135 restart flattened Harvick’s left rear tire.
“I got a pretty good restart, and obviously, the 22 (Joey Logano) and 48 got a good run, and I just held my line and the 48 just slammed into the side of my door,” Harvick said. “That was pretty much it.”
Johnson had a simple explanation for the contact.
“He was pinning me down, and I’ve got to get back up on the track,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say that what he did is any different than other situations I’ve been in like that. When you’re in Kevin’s situation, you want to give that inside car a bad angle, so they’ve got to lift.
“I was fine with lifting, but I had to get back on the race track. So I worked my way back onto the track… I pulled down inside of him, and then we were door-to-door, and then, as I moved back into the racing groove, that’s when we touched door-to-door, tire-to-tire.”
Now last in the Chase standings, Harvick feels he must win one of the next two races to advance to the Contender Round. That’s not a new position for the driver of the No. 4 Chevy. Last year he triumphed in a must-win situation at Phoenix before taking the checkered flag at Homestead to secure his first premier series title.
“We can win anywhere,” Harvick said after the race. “We could have won today. It’s just a matter of putting a couple of days together and being able to come back to Victory Lane. Same thing as last year.”
After the race, Harvick, who finished 42nd, confronted Johnson and pounded the six-time Sprint Cup champion with a blow to the chest. Kept apart by one of Harvick’s lieutenants, the drivers then went their separate ways without further incident.
Kurt Busch, who like Hamlin stayed out on old tires, led the field to green on Lap 263 after the sixth caution for debris in Turn 1 slowed the race. Busch fell to third at the finish, followed by 2014 Chase runner-up Ryan Newman, who posted his first top-five finish since April at Bristol.
Matt Kenseth ran fifth and assumed the series lead, bolstered by 12 bonus points earned for four victories in the 26-race regular season.
Notes: In a manner of speaking, history repeated itself where Hamlin is concerned. In 2010, he won at Texas, just 10 days after surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left leg… With 12 of 16 drivers slated to advance to the Contender Round, Jamie McMurray (16th on Sunday), Paul Menard (17th), Clint Bowyer (19th) and Harvick are currently below the cut line.