Denny Hamlin suffered a neck spasm at Bristol Motor Speedway, Erik Jones was tapped to fill in for the remained of the Food City 500 in Support of Steve Byrnes and Stand up to Cancer.
NASCAR.com's Nick Duncan talks with Denny Hamlin after winning the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway to claim his 5th Martinsville clock.
Can JGR driver build off last season's run to the Championship 4? RELATED: Full schedule of driver previews Team: Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota Rank in final 2014 standings: Third Wins: One ( Talladega Superspeedway in May) Year in photos: Recap Hamlin's 2014 season Strides: Denny Hamlin carried momentum from his victory in the 2013 season finale into Speedweeks, winning the Sprint Unlimited exhibition and one of the two Budweiser Duel qualifying races ahead of the Daytona 500 . He finished just short of winning the Great American Race with a runner-up finish, but applied the No. 11 team's knack for restrictor-plate tracks to post his first career victory at Talladega Superspeedway , clinching a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. Once in the postseason, Hamlin was able to advance through all three rounds of the Chase's new format, landing one of four title-eligible spots in the Sprint Cup Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway . He led 50 laps but wound up seventh in the finale -- third among the championship quartet -- when a gamble on pit strategy unraveled in the late stages. "We gave it our best run," Hamlin said. "I mean, we put together really our best race all year, that final race, and gave those guys a run when we really hadn't had the speed to race with them all year. We gave it an effort and just came up short. Really proud of what we were able to accomplish this year, even though it was somewhat of a down year for our team." Setbacks: A freak eye injury in March forced Hamlin to seek medical care at Auto Club Speedway for the second straight year on race day. In 2013, a tangle with Joey Logano left Hamlin with a broken back that sidelined him for four races and part of a fifth; in 2014, a sliver of metal in his left eye forced him out, just an hour before the green flag. A medical exemption by NASCAR officials allowed him to remain Chase-eligible as long as he met all other criteria. The new Chase qualification rules also benefited Hamlin later in the season, but the No. 11 team still felt heavy repercussions in the process. After a post-race technical infraction was found at Indianapolis Motor Speedway , NASCAR issued stiff penalties by stripping the team of 75 points, suspending crew chief Darian Grubb for six races and fining him $125,000. Injuries and penalties notwithstanding, Hamlin said after the season that he drove most of the year facing a performance deficit compared to his front-running rivals. With Joe Gibbs Racing expanding to a four-team operation with the addition of Carl Edwards to the 2015 driver roster, Hamlin said he hopes the benefits of additional information sharing can help get the organization over the hump. "You've just got to get better in all aspects, and I think we've always just been kind of that next-tier team, realistically," Hamlin said. "We can compete for race wins, week in and week out, but the championships have escaped us through mechanical stuff, which we've worked out, or this year it was just our cars weren't fast enough to compete with those guys. However, we gave ourselves a great chance that last race to really sneak a championship away from 'em, but overall we've just got to get better in more areas, and I think going to the fourth team will allow us to do that." Quoteworthy: "A lot of ups and downs -- it's been a tough year to start the year missing a race. We didn't have the tools to win a lot of races throughout the year, but we got better and we got better when it really counted. It wasn't for a lack of effort. Everyone gave 100 percent to give me the best car they could this weekend. It just wasn't enough to beat those guys." -- Hamlin , moments after finishing seventh in the championship race at Homestead-Miami. What's next: Hamlin's three-year run with Grubb drew to a close after a dramatic shake-up to JGR's crew chief lineup in the offseason. The new assignments for 2015 mean that Hamlin will pair with Dave Rogers, who served as crew chief for Kyle Busch on the No. 18 Toyota team in Sprint Cup since 2010. What won't change is the team's ultra-fast pit crew, often credited as one of the sport's best. Rogers and Hamlin have worked together with success in what is now called the NASCAR XFINITY Series (seven wins together), and Rogers' tenure with Busch produced 13 Sprint Cup wins over a five-year stretch. Hamlin's 2014 finish was the third near-miss in his quest for a career-defining breakthrough championship at NASCAR's highest level. Though times are changing at JGR with its expansion and juggling of crew chiefs, Hamlin brings high hopes that the new combination with Rogers will bear fruit in 2015. "He's well-regarded within our sport amongst other crew chiefs and I know what he can do," Hamlin said. "He's been with the No. 11 FedEx team before. This is his second time around, but me and him have never worked together in the Cup Series. I have driven his cars during tests and been really fast and comfortable with them, so I'm very excited about what we can do." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
JGR teammate discusses challenges of being out of the car for an injury Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live HAMPTON, Ga. – Denny Hamlin says he has a pretty good idea of what Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, is going through these days. Busch, 29, suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg and a mid-foot fracture of his left foot in a crash during the Feb. 21 NASCAR XFINITY Series race, the Alert Today Florida 300, at Daytona International Speedway. He has undergone surgeries on both injuries and is currently recuperating at home. It is not known when he will be able to return to competition. Hamlin missed four Sprint Cup Series races in 2013 when he suffered a back injury in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway. "I talked to him this week," Hamlin said Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, site of Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (FOX, 1 p.m. ET). "A little bit after Daytona, just talking about our cars and what I thought we felt. Kind of keeping him up to date with where we're at. But I haven't talked to him this weekend. "My guess is he's on plenty of pain medication and that's making him feel pretty good." Hamlin said the difficult part for Busch would likely be rehabilitation as Busch's body continues to heal. That and dealing with the emotions of being sidelined for so long while unable to go about his normal daily routine. "I know that personally," Hamlin said. "When you break something or something like that, the initial days you're like 'this isn't so bad, I can survive that,' but the rehab and going through all that is really going to be a challenge for him. "The biggest thing is just fighting your emotions and not getting all torn up about not being able to do the things that you were normally able to do. I was in a wheelchair for just a couple of days, he's probably going to be there for awhile so … the mental challenge will probably be the toughest thing he'll have to overcome." Two-time NACAR Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton filled in for Busch in the season-opening Daytona 500, finishing 18th in the team's No. 18 Toyota. Earlier this week, JGR officials named David Ragan the team's interim driver for the next several weeks. Ragan, a two-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series, will start 17th in Sunday's race. Eighteen-year-old Erik Jones is filling in for Busch this weekend in the organization's No. 54 entry in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Jones was originally slated to compete in 10 XFINITY events this year, with his next scheduled start coming at Auto Club Speedway. The series visits Las Vegas and Phoenix before the Auto Club stop, and JGR officials have not announced its driver plans for the No. 54 XFINITY Series team beyond this weekend. MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth: 99 laps led, two finishes outside top 25 RELATED: Full race results " Updated series standings FONTANA, Calif. -- Denny Hamlin went into Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway looking for redemption. But what he found was ill-timed misfortune. After leading 56 laps, the second-highest total of the race, Hamlin suffered a pit road penalty on Lap 186 when an uncontrolled tire left his pit box, dropping the Joe Gibbs Racing driver from third to 30th. "We worked our way up to the top five and then the top three and then had a penalty," Hamlin said on pit road following his 28th-place finish. "You just can't come back from that. There ain't nobody in the field with a fast enough car to come back from that. We had (a penalty) at an inopportune time and it just led to a bad finish and we blew up at the end, so that topped everything off." Last week at Phoenix International Raceway , Hamlin received a pit road penalty on Lap 68 for a crewmember being over the wall too soon, and after the Virginia native received the penalty this week he came over his radio to express his displeasure. "This better not be two weeks in a row, I'm telling you," Hamlin radioed to his team. "We can't catch a (expletive) break." Hamlin had high hopes of shaking his California calamities after fracturing his L1 vertebra in 2013 on a last-lap wreck when battling Joey Logano -- an injury that sidelined him for the four races that followed. And last year, Hamlin qualified 13th at Fontana, but had to be replaced in his No. 11 Toyota when he experienced vision issues that was later found to be caused from a piece of metal lodged into his eye. Hamlin wasn't the only JGR driver who experienced pit road mishaps, either. Both the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth and the No. 19 of Carl Edwards also saw setbacks. After leading 43 laps, Kenseth went to pit road as the leader on Lap 185 and left with four tires and a damaged axle when the jack dropped, resulting in a mechanical failure and a 31st-place finish. He had logged two pit stops of fewer than 11 seconds before that incident. "I let the clutch out to go and the axle broke," Kenseth explained. "I don't know why. I didn't do anything different than we ever do, so it just broke. "I don't think that's (bad) luck. An axle breaking is either a faulty part or not the right part or not the gear ratio or -- there's usually a reason. We busted one last year -- somebody did, one of our cars -- and I don't know that we ever figured out why and then we just broke another one, so it's certainly something you've got to get a handle on. You can't break parts. Nobody breaks parts anymore, so you can't afford to do it obviously." Edwards was penalized on Lap 200 (the race was extended to 209 laps due to two attempts at a green-white-checkered finish) for being too fast on pit road, but he was able to work his way back up from the rear to finish 13th. "That was a hard-fought race," Edwards said. "I got a speeding penalty toward the end and put us back in the back and made it back up to 13th. A great group effort by my guys with the backup car. Even though we couldn't get a win, to put that effort forth was huge." Coincidentally, the only JGR driver who didn't have trouble on pit road spun out on the track. David Ragan , who is still filling in for an injured Kyle Busch in the No. 18, brought out the first caution of the day when Jeff Gordon took the air off Ragan's Toyota. Ragan ultimately finished 18th. Through five races none of the JGR drivers are in the top 10 in points. Kenseth is currently the highest-running driver in the team sitting 13th in the driver standings with Hamlin and David Ragan following in 14th and 15th, respectively. JGR newcomer Edwards is close in 17th. Next week, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway , where Hamlin has earned four wins, nine top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 18 career Cup starts. MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Driver missed 2014 race with vision issues, injured in last-lap wreck in '13 Play: NASCAR Fantasy Live If Denny Hamlin were feeling a bit apprehensive about this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway , it would certainly be understandable. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has had memorable experiences in his last two trips to the 2-mile track, but not necessarily positive ones. In 2013, Hamlin won the pole for the Auto Club 400 and was battling with Joey Logano for the win on the final lap of the race when contact between the two sent Hamlin into the inside wall. The impact left Hamlin with a fractured L1 vertebra, an injury that kept him on the sidelines for the next four races. He returned to competition at Talladega, where he completed 23 laps before turning the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers . Last year, Hamlin qualified 13th at Auto Club, only to be replaced before the start of the race due to vision problems. It was later discovered that a piece of metal had become lodged in Hamlin's eye. Hamlin said he thought his team had a car capable of winning last year at ACS. In his absence, Sam Hornish Jr . drove the No. 11 Toyota, eventually finishing 17th. "I'm just as motivated (this year)," Hamlin said last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway . "The last race laps I ran around there was when I got crashed on the last lap racing for a win. "Ultimately, my motivation is to go there and perform at a really high level. It's been circled for like a year or two now to run well there. I just didn't get a chance last year and hopefully I will this year." The last two races at Auto Club have been won by teammate Kyle Busch . This year, it will be Busch that is the one on the sidelines as the No. 18 driver is recovering from leg injuries sustained in an XFINITY Series race at Daytona last month. Crew chief Dave Rogers, previously with Busch, currently heads up Hamlin's team. Hamlin has a pair of top-five finishes this season -- he was fourth at Daytona and fifth at Las Vegas -- and two results outside the top 20. He's 13th in the points standings and, like a lot of other drivers, still trying to sort out this year's rules package. "I wouldn't think this rules package would suit me and my style particularly," he said. "I'd rather have 1,000 horsepower than 700. The less downforce I would say probably does suit me a little bit better, but I think we've just kind of optimized where we're at. We've been a top-five car every week and it's a shame that we made a mistake at Atlanta and spun out, but we were top-five for sure going to finish there, I thought. "We're top-five, but we're still just a little behind on speed from where we need to from the 4 ( Kevin Harvick ) and then the Hendrick cars, but it's all about for us trying to find that little bit of extra speed." Even as they continue to search, Hamlin sees improvement, saying the team is "way closer" than where it stood competitively a year ago. While he has 24 career wins in Sprint Cup competition, none have come at ACS. He has, however, qualified on the pole for the last two events there and scored a career-best finish of third in 2008. "I'm pretty optimistic about what's to come in the months ahead and hopefully if we can make it in the Chase then we can make another run at it," he said. MORE: READ: Latest NASCAR news PLAY: Sign up for Fantasy Live WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView today FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Haunting memories of 2010 are put aside for now RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Unless and until Denny Hamlin wins his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, the legacy of Phoenix International Raceway and the 2010 season will haunt one of NASCAR's most successful drivers. But failure to seize opportunity had to be the furthest thing from Hamlin's mind when dusk turned to darkness in the desert on Saturday. His eyes were fixed on his not-quite-2-year-old daughter Taylor as the toddler wandered toward the media center stage. At the microphone, Daddy was discussing winning his third pole of the season and leading all drivers in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with two races to go. It was a chance for Hamlin to exhale, embrace the moment and think about all the future might hold. Capturing his 20th career pole had come as a pleasant surprise. His car had been far from terrific in practice. He attributed his fast lap, in part, to knowing the track and hitting his marks precisely. Oh, yes, he's been here before, literally and figuratively. But he tries not to think about 2010 and what might have been. Hamlin not only came to Arizona leading the Chase standings by 33 points, but he also led 190 laps at Phoenix that November Sunday and would have likely cruised to victory if not for an ill-fated fuel strategy that forced him to pit with 14 laps to go. That relegated him to a 12th-place finish and reduced his lead to 15 points over reigning champion Jimmie Johnson , who took command from the outset when the chips were on the table the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway . "You know, I don't think about it actually that often unless we're watching a highlight film or something like that," said Hamlin , who earlier this week admitted to the hangover effect when he got to Homestead. "In 2010, I feel like at Homestead I was still kind of bummed about what happened at Phoenix. I think every now and then about what we could have done differently. But you can't really second-guess." Sunday's Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) could go a long way toward exorcising those demons, and Hamlin , once again, knows that he controls his own destiny, even though his path to the championship is not nearly as clear-cut. Although he is tied with Joey Logano for the lead in points, six other drivers are still very much in contention for the crown. Only the top four will advance to next week's Championship Weekend with those title hopes still intact. "We were racing less guys, for sure," says Hamlin , recalling the final races of the 2010 season, including his victory at Texas Motor Speedway , his career-high eighth win of the season that propelled him to the edge of glory. "There was a point in the year where myself, Jimmie and Kevin (Harvick) had kind of broken ourselves away from the pack. Now, there are obviously more players in the game." And, with just one victory under his belt in 2014 (Talladega), Hamlin is hardly brimming with the supreme confidence bred by repeated trips to Victory Lane four years ago. "I don't feel like our performance is (at) as high of a level as it was then," Hamlin said. "So, that's more of an obstacle." That's why Saturday's pole-winning performance was so important from a mental standpoint in addition to gaining the physical advantages of leading the field and pit stall selection. "It definitely came out of the blue from my perspective," Hamlin said. "I didn't think we had a pole-winning car. I thought (starting in) the top eight would have been a huge bonus. But this showed that we have speed in the car. We just have to figure out how to get it optimized for 312 laps around this race track on Sunday." In part, Hamlin thanks the new Chase format for keeping his team in contention. "The best thing that happened (to this sport) in a long time," he said. "Even though some of the better teams throughout the entire year will probably get eliminated this weekend, other teams will be moving on. You still have to go through the due process of making it all the way to the end. The best record in any other sport does not guarantee you to be in the championship matchup." It's not as though Hamlin has not experienced success at Phoenix. He won at PIR in March 2012, one of five wins that season and 14 top-five finishes. But the rewards have been slim the last two seasons, particularly last year when he was sidelined early by a fractured vertebra. This season has not been without incident. In fact, having missed the fifth points race of the season at Auto Club Speedway due to a sliver of metal in his eye, Hamlin has the chance to become the first driver since Richard Petty in 1971 to win a Cup title without competing in every race. But first things, first. With the eight Cup contenders separated by just 18 points, Hamlin must survive Sunday at Phoenix before he can even begin thinking about a trophy run at Homestead. A finish of 11th or better will assure him a spot in the final four, but Hamlin isn't thinking that way. "I think the competition level is just too close and tight to be able to think that you're going to be able to coast to an 11th place," he said. "Nowadays, the difference between 11th and third and 20th is not that much. You've got to go all out every single lap and fight for every position on restarts. There is no backing into this thing and coasting our way to Homestead. "Our team has done a good job of grinding our way through this. We haven't beaten ourselves with bad finishes. Now, we have an opportunity." That opportunity begins with a second chance at Phoenix -- a chance for Hamlin to permanently leave those demons in the rearview mirror. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Denny Hamlin receives a penalty for an uncontrolled tire late at Auto Club Speedway.
NASCAR.com's Chuck Bush recaps the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Highlights include Chase Elliott's Sprint Cup Series debut, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s shifter issues and Denny Hamlin taking home another Martinsville clock.
Denny Hamlin holds off Brad Keselowski in the final laps at Martinsville Speedway to win the STP 500.