Denny Hamlin entered confident he was going to win the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. He said as much Friday, but Hamlin struggled all afternoon and finished a disappointing 19th Sunday.
"Just slow -- that's the only thing that was wrong with us today," Hamlin said. "Just a frustrating day, especially when you know that this is a race track that I feel like I can make up a difference here and there. We were a football field and then some away from the right setup today."
Martinsville is one of Hamlin's favorite tracks, and with four career victories it's also one of his best. And a week after sitting out because of a scrap of metal in his eye, the native Virginian was motivated to silence his critics by winning Sunday.
He started the weekend off well by qualifying second alongside teammate Kyle Busch. Hamlin was even competitive early, but struggled to keep pace once the sun peaked out of the clouds and the track conditions changed. Not helping matters was an ignition issue that caused his Toyota to repeatedly shutoff through the corners.
"Setup-wise, we really could have used Saturday," Hamlin said referring to rain which canceled all on-track activity Saturday. "There was a laundry list of things that we needed to try and didn't get to do it. Obviously, this car and the setup that we had was really good for 10 laps, but it just goes away too much after that."
Hamlin wasn't the lone Joe Gibbs Racing driver to leave Martinsville frustrated.
After starting on the pole, Busch led the opening 16 laps, but faded as the race moved to its conclusion. Having won the week before at Auto Club Speedway and virtually ensured of qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the No. 18 team elected to be aggressive with its setup.
It was a gamble that backfired, as Busch finished 14th.
"Odds are you're going to be in the Chase so we got the most aggressive with our setup and our teammates were less aggressive in areas," said Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief. "We intentionally tried getting out of the box a little bit and more times than not when you do that it bites you. That's what you have to do to learn. Really just disappointed to come to Martinsville and don't get a better finish than that, but excited about what we learned."
JGR's third driver, Matt Kenseth, also experienced an up-and-down day. For much of the first half of the 500-lap race, only Jimmie Johnson had a consistently faster car than Kenseth's No. 20 machine.
But after choosing not to pit during a caution, Kenseth quickly dropped down the running order and eventually fell a lap down. He would get his lap back when Kyle Larson spun off of Turn 2 on Lap 341 and Kenseth was the lucky dog recipient. Kenseth would rally to finish sixth.