What we learned in Kansas
It was a trip to America's Heartland as NASCAR Sprint Cup hit the Kansas Speedway for Sunday's STP 400. It was the second-straight race on a 1.5-mile oval, but some of the drivers who typically excel on those race tracks had problems and the circuit's hottest driver in the last 11 races appeared to be on his way to his second career victory.
But it was Denny Hamlin putting a car with the No. 11 into Victory Lane for the 199th time. Of course, NASCAR legends such as Hall of Famers Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip had that number emblazoned on their cars and account for most of those victories.
The Midwest is known for its finicky spring weather and that certainly came into play to determine the outcome of this race. So let's get straight to the "Five Things We Learned from NASCAR at Kansas."
Hamlin made the race-winning pass with 31 laps to go and was able to drive to his second victory this season -- doubling his win total from 2011.
With three laps to go, Truex tried to divebomb Hamlin by dipping to the bottom lane to make the pass, but he was unable to make the move as his car would not stick and he lost valuable momentum. He tried it one more time on the last lap, but it was too late as Hamlin scored his 19th career NASCAR Sprint Cup win. It was also the 56th Sprint Cup race victory for Joe Gibbs Racing.
It was Hamlin's first Kansas win in his ninth start and joins former JGR teammate Tony Stewart as the only repeat winner. He is the ninth winner in 13 Kansas races.
Pitting one lap before Truex helped determined the race.
"It was a great day for our race team; pit crew did a great job on that last pit stop and (crew chief) Darian Grubb made a great call bringing me in one lap early," Hamlin said. "The whole time I just kept thinking I would love to see one of Michael Waltrip's cars win. I know how much they have put in that program and I know Martin was driving his heart out. At the end we just tuned it in to where it needed to be."
Truex led a race-high 173 of the 267-lap race and blamed the tires more than the sun for keeping him out of Victory Lane.
"I don't think it was the sun; we put that last set of tires on it and the car wasn't like it was all day long," Truex said. "It was bad, bad loose for the first 20 laps at the end. Once you lose the lead, it is pretty hard to get it back. When he is running as hard as you are it's impossible to pass him. I know we are going to get our win I just hate giving them away like that."
Truex hasn't won a race in 175 races and has just one Cup victory in his career.
Waltrip, who is not only Truex's team owner but also has the unusual job as a FOX analyst, tried to put the finish in perspective.
"I love that stuff," Waltrip said. "In Martin Truex's defense, he had the car out front all day long. How do you work on a car that is out front? It's running well, the sun comes out and throws the setup off a little bit and that is all it took for Denny Hamlin to jump on him. It just took his groove away and hurt his effort.
"I appreciate Denny saying that he feels bad for me not winning. But he must not feel too bad because he won the race."
Greg Biffle finished fifth for his seventh top-five finish in eight races but Truex is now up to second in points, 15 behind Biffle.
"It's been a great year for us, but we were just off a little bit today sliding the nose," Biffle said. "To finish fifth after having a little bit of an off day, we couldn't be happier."
Truex was out front of most of the race when green flag pit stops began with 43 laps to go. After pit stops Hamlin had closed the gap to the rear bumper of Truex's car. Sam Hornish, Jr. -- who won at Kansas in an IndyCar -- led the race at Lap 227. Hornish pitted with 34 laps to go and that put Truex back in the lead but by now his car was loose with Hamlin hounding him from the rear.
Hamlin dove to the bottom trying to pass Truex with 32 laps to go. He finally made the move off Turn 2 with 31 to go putting him on his path to victory. But with 16 laps to go, Truex began to pick up the speed to close in on Hamlin as traffic came into play.
Only one driver in the last 11 races has scored more points than Truex (Stewart).
"I just wish I was closer to those guys to race for it, but we really ran second to third all day long seemed to be the pace that we had in the car, so to come home third, I'd love to finish better, but it's not like we had a dominant car with the most laps that didn't win this week," Johnson said. "We kind of finished where we ran all day.
"We made a lot of adjustments; we had good speed, but to catch the 56 (Truex) we needed more," Johnson said. "I could get to him, but we couldn't pass him. We came into the pits when a lot of others stayed out. But it was a great day just wish we could have raced for the win. Going to Richmond -- it has been hit or miss for me but I'm ready to go short track racing. I love that place."
Victory No. 200 for HMS remains elusive.
"This week it doesn't register," Johnson said. "To me last week at Texas, the week before Martinsville or to lead a lot of laps at Martinsville and have our cars lead one, two, three and not get the victory, to get the most laps and today to get near the end and not close the deal does sting. Today we ran well but we weren't a dominant car and kind of finished where we should have. Today doesn't bother me. Sure, I'd love to do it, but the 56 (Truex) and the 11 (Hamlin) at the end had more pace than we did."
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is fourth in points, 21 behind Biffle and Johnson has advanced to seventh in points, 37 out of the lead. On the flip-side, Gordon finished 21st and is 18th in points.
Earnhardt had a blast driving on the aging surface at Kansas and continues his impressive season.
"It was fun, the car was fun to drive and we've had a great weekend," Earnhardt said. "For whatever reason, that last run, we were really loose. When you look at all the guys I'm racing around, their track bars are on the ground and we're running ours about three inches higher, probably. We've just got to figure out a way to get that down and get the car to rotate and get the rear grip in the car. But I had fun. We never really cured our problems on the track, but we had a good car and it was a real consistent team, so we've got that going for us. And we've just got to get a little bit more to get to where we can try to win some races.
"Well, you want to win for Rick (Hendrick) and for yourself and your team. Everybody here needs a win for one reason or another. We're all working really hard. I'm not really focusing on it or honing in on it too heavily. You've just got to think about what your car is doing and what you need to do to help your car and make your car faster and the wins eventually take care of themselves. We've just got to keep working and not thing about the big prize but just think about the little things we need to work on every day."
When told it seems he is really, really close to a win, Earnhardt answered emphatically.
"We are," he said.
And that confidence should resonate with the members of "Junior Nation."
Eight races in and Busch still hasn't sniffed Victory Lane. He finished 10th on Sunday and is 13th in the standings.
That could change Saturday night at Richmond where Busch has three wins, 11 top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 14 starts. He is the defending champion of that race.
"I don't know what happened -- I just wish it didn't happen here," Bowyer said of his engine. "Anywhere but here."
He is yet another driver anxious to head to Richmond, where he has three wins, nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 26 career starts.