NASCAR: Hamlin foils Burton’s strategy

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 31, 2008

By Hank Kurz Jr.
Associated Press
MARTINSVILLE, Va. ó Denny Hamlin hopes he’s finally put his frustration behind him, not only at Martinsville Speedway, but throughout the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
“It’s just been so close so many times and to finally break through here, it definitely means a lot,” Hamlin said Sunday after he foiled Jeff Burton’s late-race pit strategy and won the Goody’s 500. “It feels like maybe the monkey is off our back.”
Hamlin had twice finished in the top three on the smallest, tightest track in the series, and said he felt like bad luck had let several other wins slip away, too.
At Atlanta three weeks ago, he had just moved into second place when his power steering failed. Then in the last race at Bristol, a fuel pickup problem on the restart of a two-lap sprint to the finish cost him a chance to win, and he finished sixth.
“I definitely feel like maybe this is the turning point for our team,” he said.
For 389 laps, the race looked like it would be another victory for Hendrick Motorsports at the track it has dominated by winning eight of the last 10 races.
Hendrick drivers led 371 of those laps, but Hamlin and fellow Virginia native Jeff Burton made decisions under the next-to-last caution that allowed them to move up front.
Hamlin then ruined Burton’s decision to stay out while the rest of the leaders pitted, passing him on the 427th lap and holding on for his fourth career victory.
“We timed it perfectly,” Hamlin said. “We got to the front when it counted.”
Jeff Gordon rallied to finish second, followed by Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Johnson had won three straight at Martinsville heading into the race.
Hamlin had a great view of the last one, finishing third, and had shown several times recently here that he was among the few that could run with the Hendrick teams.
“First Virginia win for me,” he said in Victory Lane. “Finally. The curse is over, I think. I hope. We’ve had such bad luck over these first few weeks.”
Hamlin arrived 15th in the point standings; he moved up to eighth.
“It finally feels good to come here and get a win,” said Hamlin, a native of Chester. “Can’t wait, man. This is a sign of things to come, I believe.”
Gordon, seeking his eighth victory at Martinsville, was satisfied.
“It came down to pit strategy, and Denny and those guys definitely did the right strategy,” he said, believing Hamlin had taken two tires with 111 laps to go.
When Gordon headed for pit road on lap 389, Burton was running second and decided to stay out. Most of the front-runners also pitted, including Hamlin, but he just stopped for fuel while the rest took tires, allowing him to beat Gordon off pit road.
Hamlin made quick work of the cars between his and Burton’s, pulling onto Burton’s bumper with 75 laps to go. He moved inside to challenge for the lead on the next lap, then did it again with 73 laps to go, passing Burton to take the lead for good.
He won by 0.398 seconds.
Gordon passed Burton with less than seven laps to go, and the normally mild-mannered and diplomatic Burton was left seething about rookie Michael McDowell’s conduct.
“We had one driver that I thought was real inconsiderate,” Burton said of McDowell, who was making his series debut for Michael Waltrip Racing. In Burton’s mind, McDowell should have been better about getting out of the way of the contenders at the end.
“He better learn some manners or he’s going to get taught,” Burton said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. of Hendrick led a race-high 146 laps, but saw his winless streak stretch to 68 races. Johnson led 135 and Gordon, the pole-sitter, led 90 laps.
“Our car was unbelievable in the first half of the race,” Gordon said. But after taking tires late, “the car just never took off,” he said, until it was too late.
The race also went well for Jamie McMurray, who arrived 36th in points and having to race his way into the field. He did that, qualifying fifth, and then backed it up, running up front most of the day before finishing eighth. He’s now 30th in points.