For Hamlin, right strategy but wrong result at Indy
July 27, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
RELATED: Hamlin's No. 11 car to R&D for further evaluation
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Denny Hamlin could see it unfolding in front of him, like the asphalt surface at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- a 15-second lead, a tank full of fuel, and a clear path to a major career landmark at the Brickyard.
That was the plan, at least, and it all hinged on one thing -- getting the No. 11 car full of fuel on the penultimate pit stop of the day. At least until the Joe Gibbs Racing driver cycled back onto the big rectangular track, and a voice over the radio unexpectedly instructed him to try and save gas.
"Did you say you didn't get it full?" Hamlin asked.
"That is correct," came the response from crew chief Darian Grubb.
And with that, what could have been the winning strategy Sunday at Indianapolis was blown to bits, and Hamlin needed to rely almost solely on the speed of a race car that looked fast enough to take advantage of the tactics. As Jeff Gordon did burnouts celebrating his record-setting fifth career victory on the hallowed Indianapolis oval, Hamlin leaned against his car on pit road and wondered what might have been.
"I was pretty confident. I was pretty confident we were going to win the race," Hamlin said after ending up third. "Our car was just fast. We didn't get passed by anyone. We didn't. All day long, nobody really passed us. We were just faster than everyone that was around us, faster than everyone that was behind us. I knew with the right track position, we could win the race."
To try and get there, Grubb employed a sly but simple bit of strategy that entailed taking four tires every stop and running the car until it was nearly out of fuel, with the hope that Hamlin could rally from his 27th-place starting position and make one less stop than the competition. It was just one tactic on a day when several teams employed what Hamlin referred to as "wacky strategy," including that of Joey Logano, who stayed out during an early competition caution Sunday, but pitted on his own shortly afterward with the hope getting ahead on pit cycles and outrunning everyone to the finish.
"Really, we executed perfectly," said Logano, who finished fifth. "I felt like everything went as smooth as it could. Just not fast enough. Just got to find more speed. I never thought even throughout practice that I was going to have a car fast enough to win this thing. I was hoping strategy would work out …. I'm not going to pass my way up there like the 24 (car) did. We did everything we were supposed to do, we just needed a faster race car."
Hamlin had it, as evidenced by the way he made up track position over the waning stages of the race, and in his ability to make a late three-wide pass to snag a third-place finish that seemed far from likely immediately following the mistake on pit road. Afterward, NASCAR said there was a possible issue with the rear firewall block-off plates on the No. 11 car, which was being taken back to the sanctioning body's Research and Development Center in Concord, North Carolina, for further evaluation.
But immediately after the race, it was the fueling error that was most prominent on the team's mind. Hamlin pitted with 90 laps remaining, and the team's entire strategy hinged on getting the car full on that stop. Grubb said the issue stemmed from how the fuel chugged out of the can, not allowing the team to get the car full before it exited the stall. Over the radio, Hamlin asked how many gallons they were short. "Too many, buddy," Grubb responded. The mistake cost Hamlin 17 positions on the track when he had to pit again.
"We were going to have a 15-second lead with enough fuel to make it, and dang it, just didn't get it full," Hamlin said. "That one stop we just had to get it full, we didn’t get it full, and had to make that extra stop. But that shows how fast our car was that we were able to battle back."
Indeed, despite the poor qualifying effort and having to make one more pit stop than planned, Hamlin gradually crawled back into it. He caught a break when Ryan Truex stalled to bring out a caution with 20 laps remaining, allowing him to stay out and gain some of the track position he had lost. Hamlin restarted fifth, and in the final laps made the big pass on the inside of Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne to claim a once-unforeseen third.
"A little bit shocked, but more or less just disappointed," Grubb said of the finish. "We know we had a car we could have won with. Just a miscue on our part right there in the middle of the race while we were right in our fuel window to make it to the end, and we just didn't get the car full and we had to pit again."
Even so, Grubb's strategy caught the attention of others on pit road, among them the team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- who fell a lap down due to the circumstances created by Hamlin's tactics, and later rallied to finish ninth. "We kind of had him circled on our little screen there as the guy that was going to put us a lap down, and he did just like we thought he would," No. 88 crew chief Steve Letarte said.
"The 11 (team) did a great job. They had some fueling issues, and recovered well," he added. "It's one thing to recover well, it's another thing to win. Nobody was going to win from back there. You had to be up front."
The No. 24 car certainly was, leading 40 laps, powering past Kahne on the final restart, and running away to a 2.325-seconds victory over runner-up Kyle Busch. In the face of the fastest vehicle in the race, strategy could only do so much.
"Todd Gordon called the perfect race," Logano said of his crew chief. "It was a winning strategy. We just needed a little bit more of a faster (car) to be up there and battle the 24 for the win. Fastest car won the race today. It wasn't a strategy thing or anything like that. I raced around him a few times, and every time he got around me I was like, 'Wow. We're not even close compared to where they're at.' They deserve it."