Junior Nation, that's a new one, isn't it?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started Sunday's Quaker State 400 on the pole and was leading on lap 38 when Denny Hamlin suffered a flat right front tire behind him. No big deal, right? Hamlin's car shot high in turn four, but avoided the rest of the field.
As Junior and the rest of the field thundered on, Hamlin slowly made his way around the track and dove to Kentucky's pit access road on the inside of turns three and four. As he was on that road, the carcass of that tire separated and shot towards the outside wall -- right across the track as everyone else headed into turn three.
Since he was the leader, Junior was the first to encounter the tire and he hit it with the right front of the car. After bouncing off Junior's car, the tire flew into the right front fender of Jimmie Johnson's car and dented the headlight.
Because of the locations of their respective damage, Johnson's looked more significant than Junior's. Both drivers stayed out to assess how the tire's impact affected their machines, but when the green flag flew, Johnson took the lead while Junior's car developed a significant push.
While Johnson planted himself at the front of the field and went on to lead 182 laps, dented fender and all, Earnhardt Jr.'s crew took the next 100 laps to fix the damage on the car. Though the car wasn't where it was at the start of the race, those repairs were effective enough for Junior to drive back inside the top 20 and finish 12th.
As for Hamlin? Well, those Chase chances have now disappeared from very slim to none, as he's 104 points out of the top 20 in 25th place.
Due to an apparent NASCAR technicality -- the caution for Hamlin's tire was deemed to be for debris -- Hamlin got his lap back via the free pass on that caution. However, on lap 148, he lost a right front tire again in turn four and slammed into the wall.
After driving his car back to the garage, Hamlin was transported to the infield care center. He was examined and released 20 minutes later after complaining of a headache and knee pain after banging his knee inside the car. He finished 35th.