Five things we learned at Michigan
Denny Hamlin's disappointing season now has promise after winning at Michigan
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't happy with teammate Mark Martin following a crash
Landon Cassill, 21, notched his first career top-20 finish in a Sprint Cup race
Denny Hamlin's Sprint Cup season underwent a transformation Sunday with his victory at Michigan International Speedway.
Hamlin moved from 12th to ninth in the points standings and, under the new-for-2011 criteria, tremendously increased his chances of making the Chase with his first win of the season. Of the 10 drivers who have won this year, seven are in the top 12 in points and none of the other three are in the top 20. Brad Keselowski is closest (22nd) and he needs to get into the top 20 to be in contention for a wild card (11th, 12th) spot in the Chase.
This began as a season of great expectations for Hamlin, who won eight races and finished 39 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the championship last year. It had been a disappointment through 14 races without a victory. Last week's 19th-place finish at Pocono, where Hamlin has four wins, was also a setback. He led 76 laps, but an apparent pit stop mistake caused a flat tire and resulted in the loss of his brakes, dropping Hamlin back.
If Pocono hurt the morale or confidence of the No. 11 team, it didn't show at Michigan. Hamlin's Toyota came in running second and the Mike Ford-led crew got him out first during a late pit stop. Hamlin did his job, pulling away from Matt Kenseth on the restart with five laps to go and staying in control all the way to the checkered flag.
1. Hamlin may be on the verge of putting together a string of top-fives and additional wins. Hamlin's best finishes over the previous six races were a second-place at Richmond and a third in Kansas. The 11 races that remain before the Chase line up well for him, including return trips to Richmond, Pocono and Michigan. They are three of Hamlin's best tracks. He's won two of the past three at Michigan and was second there last August.
"Everybody knows we've been strong," Hamlin said after the race Sunday. "We got it working there at the end. We made a magic adjustment and the car just took off. This is the point in the season where we really need to start going. And hopefully we've got another good 10 weeks before the Chase starts."
2. Paul Menard revived his season with a season-best fourth at Michigan and moved up to 16th in the points. He'd been an early surprise with two top-fives in the opening seven races, but went through a five-race stretch finishing 19th or worse. Menard was 14th at Pocono last week to get moving in the right direction.
He had only two top-fives in his previous four Sprint Cup seasons before joining Richard Childress Racing in 2011.
"We've had a rough month, no doubt about that," Menard said. "My guys needed a good run. We've had a fast car for the most part, just been struggling to put together a full race. We qualified in the top 10 [ninth] and that's so important at these intermediate tracks, track position. [Crew chief] Slugger [Labbe] made a good call to take two tires at the end. Kind of went back and forth, two versus four. A lot of people took two, we did. We were a little too tight at the end but the Pittsburgh Paints/Menards Chevy was just really solid [all] weekend and that's what we needed."
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't happy with a move made by teammate Mark Martin. Earnhardt was trying to overtake Martin on the outside while exiting a corner late in the race. Martin's Chevrolet moved up in front of Earnhardt's and it hit the wall. A few laps later, in Turn Two, Earnhardt's Chevrolet blew a right-front tire and hit the wall to bring out the final caution.
Martin finished ninth, Earnhardt in 21st. It was Earnhardt's worst finish since he was 24th at the Daytona 500.
"The defining moment probably was getting run into the wall by Mark [Martin]," Earnhardt said. "We had fixed the car, we were moving forward and we were doing pretty well at that point, but you can't do nothing about getting run over or getting run into the wall. I got on the outside of Mark and he just came on up and drove us into the fence off the corner. I don't know if his spotter wasn't spotting good or whether he just couldn't see good or what but [he] just ran us slap into the wall. It blew out the right front tire eventually.
"I try really hard to take care of people and try not to be careless, and I don't like putting up with carelessness, and that really pissed me off."
Martin has a reputation of being one of Sprint Cup's fairest and cleanest drivers. He says he didn't drive into Earnhardt intentionally. "I don't have a history of having problems," Martin said. "I don't think I have one now. I think we will get it sorted out. I feel like I give everybody on the racetrack respect. I made a mistake."
4. Landon Cassill finished a career-best 12th. Cassill, a 21-year-old from Fairfax, Iowa, made his 30th start in Sprint Cup at Michigan and cracked the top-20 for the first time. His previous best was 24th earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Cassill drives for car owner James Finch.
"[The car] was great and we were really fast at some parts of the race," Cassill said. "We kept getting the balance on one side or the other, and we had a little bit of racer luck there that put us in position to put us on four tires there at the end and that is what made it for us and that was awesome. Great call on [crew chief] Nick Harris' part."
5. Greg Biffle was frustrated by having a fast car and a 15th-place finish. Biffle led the most laps Sunday with 68 and was running third when he pitted under green on the 154th lap of 200. When the caution came out five laps later, the Roush Fenway Ford driver was the top car a lap down, which gave him the free pass. But he was 18th for the restart and never quite recovered.
Biffle has two wins and seven top-fives at Michigan. It was without doubt a race he thought he could win.
"The car drove great," Biffle said. "The pit stops were great. Everybody did a great job. Everything is perfect."