CONCORD, N.C.— With a deft move with three laps left in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin delivered the first victory in the non-points showcase event to Joe Gibbs Racing and to Toyota.
As he drove into Turn 1 to start Lap 107, with Kevin Harvick glued to his bumper and ready to make a run at the million-dollar first prize, Hamlin moved up a lane in the corner and took Harvick’s line away, causing Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet to lose momentum.
"It was more defense than anything, but it turned into offense for me," Hamlin said. "He (Harvick) kept getting closer and closer, and eventually he gets to that right rear quarter panel, and your race is done. Initially, I was looking in my mirror, and I knew it was going to be a defensive move to take his line.
"But I was just going to have to do something different, because I was starting to lose time. My laps time were dropping off, and I just had to do something different to try to salvage a win, and that was obviously the key move for us."
Harvick didn’t disagree with that assessment.
"I had committed to the center of the corner and just really lost the front of the car up the racetrack, had to get out of the throttle," Harvick explained. "As soon as Denny moved up that one time it kind of took the air off… Once I got to the middle of the corner the car just washed all the way up the race track and I had to lift way out of the gas to get the car back off the wall."
If that was the on-track move that made the difference, the real Saturday night heroes were the crew members on Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota, who gained five spots for their driver during mandatory four-tire pits stops before the race’s final 10-lap segment.
Hamlin led the field to the green for the final segment and stayed in front the rest of the way, beating Harvick to the finish line by .823 seconds.
Kurt Busch ran third, followed by Jeff Gordon (making his final All-Star appearance), Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, who showed excellent speed in his first competition since breaking his right leg and left foot in an XFINITY Series race at Daytona on Feb. 21.
Brad Keselowski took the lead after the first segment, thanks to a two-tire call by crew chief Paul Wolfe. Though Kurt Busch started the second segment with four fresh tires, Keselowski was able to keep the No, 41 Chevrolet at bay throughout the run.
Kurt Busch led one lap during the battle, nosing ahead at the stripe, but Keselowski pinned him down on the inside through Turns 1 and 2 and regained the top spot. Ultimately, Keselowski finished .349 seconds ahead of Busch in segment No. 2.
Both Keselowski and Busch took four tires between the second and third segments, and Keselowski led every lap en route to winning the third segment. Kevin Harvick got past Busch for second with four laps left.
But Kurt Busch restarted fifth to begin segment No. 4 and split the middle with a bold move into Turn 1. Three laps into the run, Busch passed Denny Hamlin for the lead, with Hamlin suffering the consequences of a two-tire track-position call that put him on the front row for the start of the segment.
Keeping Harvick a safe distance behind him, Busch won the fourth segment by 1.693 seconds over his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, and the cars entered pit road during the caution before the final 10-lap shootout in order of average finish over the first four segments.
The top five entering the pits were Keselowski, Busch, Kasey Kahne, Harvick and Jeff Gordon, but Hamlin was first off pit road from stall No. 1, and Keselowski drew a speeding penalty that dropped him to the back of the field for the start of segment No. 5.
"I knew that was the race, and I went for it," said Keselowski, who sped up in the final timed segment in an effort to beat Hamlin off put road.
That left Hamlin and Busch on the front row for the restart, with Harvick and Kahne behind them.
Notes: Kahne passed Hamlin, the pole winner on Lap 15 and went on to win the first segment… Danica Patrick took her car behind the wall with engine issues on lap 58 but returned to the track during segment No. 4, having lost 32 laps for repairs… Greg Biffle, who transferred into the All-Star race from Friday night’s Sprint Showdown, brushed the Turn 4 wall twice during the first segment and was never a factor thereafter.