AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Denny Hamlin leaned against his race car on pit road, staring up at the big screen at Phoenix International Raceway. He was watching the replay of a move he had made only moments earlier, a bold dive to the bottom of the race track on the final lap Sunday that fittingly capped his drive from the rear of the field.
Hamlin's No. 11 car bombed low -- way low -- through the dogleg the final time around the 1-mile facility, allowing him to pass Brad Keselowski for third place and come within a fender of beating Jimmie Johnson for second. Carl Edwards may have won the race, but no driver made up more ground in Phoenix than Hamlin, who started at the back because of a post-qualifying engine change yet still managed to be a factor at the end.
"We didn't pass that many guys, we just had good pit strategy," Hamlin said. "We just did all the right things as far as strategy and tires, and the pit crew made up spots every time we got on pit road. When you don't have a good car, that's what you have to do to get a good finish, and that's what we got."
Hamlin wasn't the only Joe Gibbs Racing driver forced to work his way up through the field Sunday. Teammate Kyle Busch also had to vacate his starting position because of an engine change, and also had to start at the rear. But Busch spun while challenging Edwards for 14th place on lap 48, damaging the front end of the No. 18 car and losing a lap while on pit road undergoing repairs.
"It looked like Kyle was out there just joyriding, but after the race he said he was pushing real hard to get by the 99 (car of Edwards)," said Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief. "I thought we were a little bit better than the 99, and they went on to win the race."
In the end, it was Hamlin among the JGR drivers who challenged for the victory, but not before driving up through the field. Hamlin qualified eighth, but the engine in his No. 11 car broke a valve spring after the starting field was set, forcing a change under the hood and a move to the rear. Though Hamlin made the charge look easy, it was anything but, according to crew chief Darian Grubb, who used strategy to make up for shortcomings with the car.
"It was tougher than we thought," Grubb said. "We really played the strategy well, and were able to pick up four, five spots each time we were able to play the strategy. But it was tougher than we thought it was going to be. We thought our car was a little better than it was, and we had to work on it all day. Sometimes that actually limited how far we could actually go on the strategy calls. But overall, a great day."
And a great ending, as Hamlin dove low through the backstretch dogleg, looking for a moment as if he would vault from fourth to first. He actually passed Johnson for second, but had to hit the brakes and slow his momentum entering Turn 3, allowing the five-time champion to nudge back ahead. Up on the pit box, Grubb didn't see it -- he only heard the spotter calling that his car was three-wide and on the bottom.
"Then I saw the replay and realized we were 50 yards on the bottom," Grubb said, laughing. "That was pretty impressive. I've really proud of Denny for going out there, after the day and the weekend we had, and him fighting as hard as he had to get that position. ? We'll take that after the weekend we had."
Hamlin said he started plotting the move after he saw Keselowski and Johnson side-by-side for second. "I knew it was going to be interesting, at least for that lap, because Brad was driving so hard," he said. "Eventually he was going to slide up, and he knew he was going to slide up, and he did and opened the door for me."
Johnson said his spotter let him know the No. 11 car was coming. In his rearview mirror, he had an eyeful of the black and orange Toyota. "We all rolled in there without wrecking," said Johnson, who barely hung on to second. " When I first heard that we were three-wide, I was pretty concerned that I wasn't going to have a clean lane to race in."
Busch, meanwhile, was back in the pack. The earlier accident set off a string of events that made it difficult for the No. 18 car to climb back into contention: the vehicle's splitter was dragging the ground, so crew had to raise the whole car up to get it clear of the asphalt, which, in turn, compromised its aerodynamic properties and grip. Meanwhile Busch struggled to get back on the lead lap, not receiving the free pass until after David Gilliland's accident with just 79 laps remaining.
"I just tried to get too much too early," Busch said. "We came from the back and had worked out way up through there, but our car was really loose, especially in traffic. I came up on Carl getting into (Turn) 2, and it just came around on me. We just kept fighting for the lucky dog and finally got it there, but it was too late to get back up toward the front."
"We just hurt the car so bad," added Rogers, whose vehicle was one of the fastest in practice and qualified fourth at Phoenix, but wound up 23rd in the race. "? Once we got on the lead lap we started making up spots and thought we were OK, but we lost all of our grip. You can live on tire grip for a while, but you need that downforce. But we killed the downforce by raising the car up."
That much was evident when Busch nearly wiggled up into the wall again while decelerating to avoid the slowing car of his brother Kurt.
Kyle Busch had to start in the rear because a spring was replaced improperly in his engine, which caused something in the valve train to break after it was restarted on Sunday morning. It was the fourth terminal failure involving Toyota Racing Development engines in the first two weeks of this season, including a pair of breakdowns -- one each for Busch and teammate Matt Kenseth -- in the Daytona 500.
Sunday, TRD senior vice president David Wilson said none of those issues were related, and that the company was working to restore confidence at JGR and Michael Waltrip Racing, which both use their product. After the race, Hamlin said that will come only with time.
"Until we run a whole weekend and not have problems, it will be a concern," he said. "But it doesn't alter how we approach every weekend. We're going to drive the cars as hard as we can, because that's what we're supposed to do to win. We can't try to make up for what we don't have as far as reliability."
Grubb added that he had no qualms about the engine used in Hamlin's car Sunday, and will go into next weekend's event at the high-speed Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the same confidence as always.
"They're working really closely with us. Anytime we have an issue, we all dig into it to try and figure out what's going on," he said. "Luckily, nothing that they've had have really been recurring issues. Everything seems a little bit different. So we're trying to dissect it just as much as they are, and help them out. We don't know if we're doing things wrong as a team individually, or if it's the engine parts and pieces. We're just trying to work together on all that, and we'll go into next week with as much confidence as we've had all along. That's what we have to do."
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