MARTINSVILLE, Va.—With Brad Keselowski beating a tattoo into his rear bumper, and with his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota sliding sideways as it approached the checkered flag, Denny Hamlin held on to his car and held off Keselowski to win Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
In winning his first race of the season, his fifth at the .526-mile short track and the 25th of his career, Hamlin took the lead for good on Lap 473 of 500, passing teammate Matt Kenseth for the top spot. Two laps later, Keselowski surged past Kenseth and tracked down Hamlin, setting up a breathtaking battle in the closing laps.
Keselowski could have won his second straight Sprint Cup race by wrecking Hamlin, but the 2012 premier series champion opted not to win the race with his bumper.
“Hats off to Brad–he had an option, and he took the latter (not to wreck the No. 11),” said Hamlin, who broke a 31-race Toyota winless streak dating back to his victory at Talladega last May. “So thank him for that…
“We had some good short-track racing those last few laps.”
Keselowski tried everything in the closing laps short of knocking Hamlin’s car into the fence.
“I did everything I could, other than wreck him,” said Keselowski, last week’s winner at Auto Club Speedway in California. “I hit him pretty good a couple of times. I don’t know what else I could have done other than drive through him.”
Keselowski took his last shot off the final corner, bumping Hamlin’s car and turning it sideways. But Hamlin righted the car and drove to the finish line .186 seconds ahead of the race runner-up.
Hamlin, who recovered from a penalty for a runaway tire on Lap 166 and a resulting trip to the rear of the field, said the victory followed the longest competition meeting he’s experienced at Joe Gibbs Racing, one in which team owner Joe Gibbs pointedly addressed his teams.
“Joe doesn’t raise his voice very often, but he did this time,” Hamlin said. “He told us to get off our tails and get to work.”
Obviously, the effort paid off on Sunday.
Coors Light Polesitter Joey Logano ran third, overcoming a Lap 219 spin in Turn 2 that started when Michael Annett’s Chevrolet got loose underneath Logano’s Ford and knocked the No. 22 out of the racing groove.
Kenseth came home fourth and David Ragan fifth in his continuing substitute role for Kyle Busch, as Joe Gibbs Racing put three cars in the top five. Martin Truex Jr. was sixth, posting his sixth straight top 10 to start the season, and Danica Patrick finished seventh, one position shy of her best result in the Sprint Cup series.
The top 10 was Patrick’s fifth in NASCAR’s premier division, tying her with Janet Guthrie for most in the series by a female driver. The driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet gained seven positions in the standings to 16th.
“I’m proud of everyone for not giving up and for keeping their head in the game, and the pit crew did a good job,” said Patrick, who was a lap down after 200 circuits but benefited from a free pass as the highest-scored lapped car under a Lap 206 caution for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s brush with the Turn 3 wall
“They were frustrated last weekend after making a mistake on the last stop (at Fontana), and it’s a team effort, you know. I’m going to make mistakes at the very end, too. I’m not going to lie, I was glad there was not a yellow at the very end coming to the white. I was glad for that.”
The late-lap war between Hamlin and Keselowski was simply the finale to an action-filled afternoon that produced 16 cautions for a total of 112 laps.
It was the 16th caution that proved the undoing of eight-time Martinsville winner Jeff Gordon, who grabbed the lead from Kenseth on Lap 442 and appeared headed for victory in his final full-time season before NASCAR threw the yellow flag for debris on the frontstretch on Lap 460.
Trying to maintain his position at the front of the field, Gordon was flagged for speeding on pit road as he approached his stall and restarted at the rear of the field on Lap 467. To his credit, Gordon drove to a ninth place before he ran out of laps.
Notes: In his series debut, Chase Elliott was a victim of early contact, went to the garage for repairs and completed 427 laps, finishing 38th…
Kevin Harvick ran eighth and saw his streak of consecutive top-two finishes end at eight. Harvick retained the series lead by 24 points over Logano, with Truex holding third, 32 points back…
Hamlin’s 25th victory ties him with the late Joe Weatherly for most by a Virginia native. Hamlin has accounted for all five of Toyota’s victories at Martinsville.