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Dominant days turn sour for Hamlin, Blaney in late going at Martinsville

The NASCAR Cup Series’ first stop of the season at Martinsville Speedway spanned two days — one start-and-stop night Saturday and a sun-splashed Sunday. Two near-constants atop the scoring pylon were Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney.

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The two traded the lead often, their car numbers of 11 and 12 swapping the first and second spots throughout, but late-race issues kept both drivers out of Victory Lane by the end of Sunday’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain 500. Their dominance was legend, as Hamlin and Blaney combined to lead 433 of the 500 laps, but Martin Truex Jr.’s resurgence as the race pushed into the evening hours prevailed, elevating him to the series’ first repeat winner of 2021. Hamlin wound up third with Blaney 11th.

Both seemed poised to break droughts at the tricky .526-mile Virginia track. Hamlin was set up for his sixth Martinsville triumph but first since 2015. Blaney made a convincing case for his first Martinsville win.

Hamlin was out front for 276 laps, benefiting from a No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that brimmed with short-run speed. But his car began to fade in the final 42-lap run to the finish, as Truex worked his way by to pace the last 16 laps and Chase Elliott capitalized to grab second place.

Hamlin emerged from Martinsville with his grip on the series’ points lead intact, but the zero in the win column also remains, offset by a series-best seven top-five finishes in eight races.

“It’s just been amazing the execution that our team has had over the first eight races. Short of a pit-road penalty I had on the last pit stop at Homestead, we finished top three every single week,” Hamlin said. “It’s hard to be disappointed with that. We’re executing phenomenal. We just haven’t had that dominant car that we’ve had a few times last year that we just beat up on everyone. We just haven’t had that car yet. We’ve just been next best.”

Blaney, who swept the stage wins and led 157 laps with a car best suited to long green-flag stints, had a more dramatic drop from the ranks of contenders. He pulled in for his final pit stop on Lap 454 in second place, but his No. 12 Team Penske Ford crew had the air-gun hose stick hang up in the left-front fender well as he left. Compounding the issue was damage sustained on Martinsville’s close-quarters pit road with Elliott. The penalty for removing equipment from his pit stall knocked Blaney from fifth to 19th in the running order, and he was only able to rally to just outside the top 10 by the end.

“We had a really good Menards/Pennzoil Ford Mustang tonight. On the long runs we were really good. Denny was good on short runs,” Blaney said. “I was just kind of trying to hold off the guys behind me until we got 20 or so laps in and then I could kind of start creeping forward. But we just got that pit road penalty at the end. It’s just a mistake and something that should be avoided. We’ve had an issue the last three times we’ve been here with a car to win, so that’s frustrating but I’m real proud of the effort. I just wish we could close one out.”