Updated: May 5, 2014, 11:21 AM ET

Denny Hamlin Tames Big Bad Talladega

Sprint Cup: Hamlin gets a plate win at Dega

By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

Talladega was supposed to be the race that landed a genuine wild card into the Chase.

Instead, the winner of the Aaron's 499 was Denny Hamlin, a guy who was expected to win races in 2014 but to date had been suffering through an inconsistent and frustrating campaign.

Right behind Hamlin as the yellow and checkered flags flew were Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer, two more men with Chase aspirations who were trying to end lengthy winless streaks. But they, along with late leader Kevin Harvick (who dropped to seventh place in the last two laps), were denied a shot at stealing the win from Hamlin because an accident unfolded near the start-finish line just after the white flag flew, forcing the race to end under caution.

Denny Hamlin
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesDenny Hamlin was on cloud nine after winning the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.

On this occasion, with a bumper cap lying in the middle of the racing groove, there was no question NASCAR needed to throw the yellow. But it ended a race that featured a little bit of everything -- the usual multicar wrecks, verbal fights between drivers and even the sight of Danica Patrick leading six early laps -- on an anticlimactic note.

That didn't matter to Hamlin and the No. 11 team from Joe Gibbs Racing, who have often struggled this year after dominating the run-up to the Daytona 500 and finishing second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the season opener.

Hamlin missed the race at Auto Club Speedway after initially being diagnosed with a severe sinus infection that affected his vision (a small piece of metal in an eye later proved to be the culprit) and hadn't finished higher than 13th in the four races since. But at Talladega, he ran near the front all day and put the FedEx Toyota in front when it really counted to earn his first restrictor-plate track points victory.

By becoming the eighth different winner in 10 Sprint Cup races this year, Hamlin also almost certainly locked himself into the Chase.

"We really just want to win races, regardless of what implications this means for the Chase," Hamlin said after his 24th career Cup series race win. "It feels good to be back in Victory Lane in a points-paying event anyway. Strategically, we saw that things were getting a little heavy there in the middle part of the race and those guys got in a wreck, but we were able to avoid that and just play our cards right there and make the right strategy. Just proud of our day today."

The wrecks started early and happened often. Perhaps the most surprising was the Lap 15 incident involving Patrick and 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. Opinions were divided over who was at fault, but Patrick's Chevrolet tapped the left rear quarter of Keselowski's Ford as he tried to complete a pass for the lead of the race. The Penske star took a wild ride through the infield and didn't make wall contact, but damage to the left front corner of the Miller Lite car would cost Keselowski seven laps.

It also would have implications later in the race, when Keselowski lost control near the front of the pack while trying to get one of his laps back. The wreck swept in 15 cars and left a number of competitors unhappy with Keselowski's overall aggressiveness.

Matt Kenseth, one of the drivers caught out in the Lap 137 crash triggered by Keselowski, vented in a television interview, calling the move on Patrick for the lead earlier in the race "mind-boggling."

"Then I thought he was a bunch of laps down, but maybe he was trying to get back on the lead lap and just spun out in front of all of us and tore up a bunch of good race cars," Kenseth added. "I will say one thing: If it was the other way around and it was anybody else except for him, we'd all be getting lectured. He was racing pretty aggressively there to try to get it back."

Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson triggered another multicar wreck with 13 laps to go, decimating the field even more. Twenty-seven of the 43 starters managed to complete the full 188-lap race distance.

Ten races into the uncharted territory of a new Chase format, the season is playing out exactly as NASCAR had hoped. Nobody is dominating so far, favorites such as Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart still haven't posted a win, and, with each passing week with a new winner, the likelihood of amassing 16 race-winning drivers to fill the Chase field looks more and more likely.

The record for number of race winners in a season was set in 2001, when 19 drivers won races. That year, along with 2011, produced a record 15 race winners in the first 26 events. The average number of pre-Chase winners over the past decade is 12.7; the low is 10, a number that has already been matched in 2014.

The bottom line: As the number of drivers winning races increases, so does the importance of the actual point standings. The way things are going, "Win and you're in" might no longer be enough.

The Rundown: Nationwide At Talladega


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