In the end, Denny Hamlin wound up where he thought he would after 500 miles at Atlanta Motor Speedway. But he and crew chief Mike Wheeler went off script in hopes of improving the No.11 team’s finish.
In the third and final stage of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, Wheeler decided to begin stretching the pit window. Keeping Hamlin on track longer than the leaders, Hamlin inherited the top spot before pitting much later the field. Hamlin then did the same thing a second time in hopes of holding on to the finish.
Unfortunately, Kevin Harvick was blistering the 1.5-mile facility all night and quickly caught Hamlin for the lead. A caution with 28 laps to go then erased the strategy, sending the leaders down pit road one final time for tires with Hamlin coming out third.
“I wasn’t surprised. I had an idea [about using that strategy],” Hamlin said after finishing fourth and leading 26 laps. “As soon as I left pit road he [Wheeler] said I was going to have to go 50 laps the first time, so I immediately knew he was going to break it up into two stops instead of three. I wasn’t surprised at all about it.”
What about worried? Had the caution come out after Hamlin had pitted, he would have been trapped a lap down.
“Worried about it, a little bit in the second stint [of the strategy play] because I wasn’t running really fast lap times on new tires. I think 32 flat or something like that,” said Hamlin. “Other guys were able to run some 70s or 80s, and it seemed like we got to the lap time of like 33 whatever pretty quick. You need the lap times to be pretty linear for that strategy to work and we kind of leveled off a little bit and some of the field leveled off. I was worried a little bit, but I kept seeing it cycle around to where I was in good position.”