Denny Hamlin back in Sprint Cup victory lane despite back problems

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For crew chief Mike Wheeler, Sunday morning of the Sprint Cup race at Waktins Glen International began with news, the kind that’s “not something you really want to hear.”

A text message from his driver Denny Hamlin said Hamlin “was in trouble.”

The Daytona 500 winner had just woken up and something wasn’t right with his back. Hamin recognized the feeling, despite not having major problems with his back “in the past four to five years.”

“I don’t know what causes it,” Hamlin said Sunday after winning his second race of the year, diagnosing it as potentially sleeping in a bad position or due to race travel disrupting his exercise regimen.  “It just happens every now and then. It’s never happened on a race day, for sure.”

The Cheez-It 355 was scheduled to start at 2:49 p.m. ET. Hamlin had to endure a lot of pain before he could even climb into his No. 11 Toyota, which was sixth on the starting grid.

“We worked on it all day to try to make it better. We really didn’t make it much better,” said Hamlin. “If it was Friday or Saturday, no question I wouldn’t have turned one lap today. It was by far the worst conditions I’ve ever had to drive in, over the knees, anything else. This was by far the worst pain‑wise I’ve had to go through.”

This was coming from the driver who won at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2010 three weeks after undergoing surgery to repair ligaments in his left knee. Hamlin is the driver that raced through the entire Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2015 – including winning the opener at Chicagoland – after tearing his other ACL two weeks before its start and putting off surgery until the offseason.

In April 2015, Hamlin was even replaced by Erik Jones following a lengthy rain delay at Bristol Motor Speedway after pulling something in his neck, the pain from which “was bothering me quite a bit” Hamlin said.

On Sunday, Hamlin’s back was bothering him so much, he couldn’t even sit during the driver-crew chief meeting that began at 12:30 p.m. ET, about two hours before the race – which was 90 laps and 220.9 miles long – began.

Wheeler, in his first season as Hamlin’s Sprint Cup crew chief after years of working together, sat next to his driver.

“You could just tell he was in pain. Nothing you could do today to fix it,” Wheeler said. “He’s had this happen before years ago. But he knows the situation he was in and he knows he’s got to tough it out, and he did.”

When it comes to race length, you can’t factor in the unpredictability of wrecks or their severity. Twice the race was red-flagged, the first for 13 minutes and 19 seconds and the second, with five laps remaining, lasted for just under 17 minutes.

That was 17 minutes extra minutes of stewing in pain for Hamlin, who also happened to be in the lead after claiming it on a Lap 81 restart when Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski overshot Turn 1.

With Martin Truex Jr. and Keselowski behind him, Hamlin was in the best – albeit the most uncomfortable – position he’d ever been in to win a road course race in his 12-year career.

“Trust me, I’m sitting there, even though I’m joyed that we’re leading the race, I was thinking under the red flag, ‘Let’s get this over with so I can get out of this car,'” Hamlin admitted.

After two hours, 27 minutes and 48 seconds, Hamlin finally got out of his car, but he did so very slowly. The smoke from Hamlin’s celebratory burnout that ravaged his tires was still in the air and his teammates were running down pit road to celebrate. Hamlin slowly crept to the pit wall.

Unlike the smoke, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver couldn’t linger. He was needed elsewhere to celebrate his 28th Sprint Cup win, which redeemed his last turn mistake at Sonoma Raceway in June that gave Tony Stewart his 49th win.

On a bad back and with his car temporarily immobile on bad tires, Hamlin trudged into Victory Lane like a runner bringing up the tail end of a marathon.

“Honestly it’s more validating because I feel so awful,” Hamlin said. “There were many corners that I under‑drove just because my feel wasn’t as good today in the race car. That’s how we feel the edge is through our back side. When our back side is not healthy, it’s tough. That’s what made it extra special, is that when it was game time, when it was go time, we got it done.”

Starting lineup for Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma

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Sunday’s main event of the weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR Cup race, will have a definite Chip Ganassi Racing flavor when the green flag drops.

Pole sitter Kyle Larson will lead the 38-car field to the starting line, while CGR teammate Jamie McMurray will be his wing man, alongside on the front row.

Larson is hoping to do the same thing Sunday that he did last Sunday at Michigan: he started from the pole and finished with the win. He and McMurray are in Chevrolets, while Toyotas make up Row 2 with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.

Row 3 has the Chevrolet of A.J. Allmendinger and the Ford of Danica Patrick, who will be the highest-starting driver for both Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s Patrick’s third-best career start in a Cup race, and her highest start since Charlotte in May 2014.

The defending race winner, Tony Stewart, retired at the end of last season from NASCAR Cup competition.

Click here for the full row-by-row starting lineup.

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Elliott Sadler remains No. 1 in Xfinity standings after Iowa race

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Elliott Sadler remains atop the Xfinity Series point standings following Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa Speedway.

Sadler finished eighth in what was his 800th career NASCAR start across all three major series: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

JR Motorsports drivers own the top three spots in the standings: Sadler holds a 25-point lead over teammate Justin Allgaier and a 57-point edge on another teammate and Saturday’s race winner, William Byron, who is third in the Xfinity standings.

Daniel Hemric is fourth, 146 points behind Sadler, while Ryan Reed is 155 points behind in fifth place.

Click here for Xfinity points report.

MORE: Race results from Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa

MORE: William Byron takes first Xfinity win at Iowa, avenges close loss at Michigan

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Race results from Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa

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William Byron bounced back from last weekend’s razor-thin loss at the finish line to Denny Hamlin at Michigan to earn his first career Xfinity Series victory Saturday night under the lights at Iowa Speedway.

Byron, who won seven Truck races last season, roared to the front late in the race after a final restart and held on to become the youngest race winner (19 years old) at the .875-mile track in Newton, Iowa.

MORE: William Byron takes first Xfinity win at Iowa, avenges close loss at Michigan

MORE: Elliott Sadler remains No. 1 in Xfinity standings after Iowa race

In a unique backstory to the race outcome, each of the top four finishers recorded Xfinity Series career-best showings, while Dakoda Armstrong tied his career-best Xfinity finish.

Click here for the full results from Saturday’s race.

 

William Byron takes first Xfinity win at Iowa, avenges close loss at Michigan

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One week after missing out on a win by .012 of a second, William Byron broke through for his first career Xfinity victory, capturing Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa Speedway.

The 19-year-old Charlotte, North Carolina native’s previous best Xfinity finish was second, when he lost out to Denny Hamlin at the start-finish line in last weekend’s race at Michigan, but Byron would not be denied Saturday night under the lights, becoming the youngest Xfinity winner on the .875-mile track in Newton, Iowa.

In earning his first win in his 14th career Xfinity start, Byron took the lead late in the race and kept a number of drivers at bay in the closing laps. He also qualified for the Xfinity Series playoffs. He also became the first first-time winner in the Xfinity Series this season.

“It feels awesome,” Byron told Fox Sports 1. “I think we had a first- or second-place car, got a little bit loose on one run and then we got back on cycle there at the end and were able to take off. It’s really cool.”

MORE: Race results from Saturday night’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa

MORE: Elliott Sadler remains No. 1 in Xfinity standings after Iowa race

Ryan Sieg finished second, followed Tyler Reddick, Ross Chastain and Dakoda Armstrong.

Sixth through 10th were Michael Annett, Jeremy Clements, JR Motorsports teammates Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, and 10th-place finisher Garrett Smithley.

This was how close Byron lost to Denny Hamlin last weekend at Michigan.

HOW BYRON WON: In much the same way he won several of his seven Truck Series races last season, Byron quietly stalked the leaders through much of the race. Then, following a wreck that involved Christopher Bell, Ryan Reed and Brennan Poole with 32 laps to go, Byron worked his way to the front as the final laps ticked off and won.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Interestingly, all of the top-four finishers earned their career-best Xfinity showings: Byron (1st), Sieg (2nd), Reddick (3rd) and Chastain (4th), while Armstrong tied his career-best finish (5th).

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Sam Hornish Jr. came in as the defending winner and kicked off a multi-race deal with Team Penske with this race. He was running in the top-5 when Christopher Bell got into Hornish on Lap 80, sending him into the wall and ending his night. … Seymour, Wisconsin’s Ty Majeski had a good night going in his Xfinity Series debut until he was involved in a solo wreck on Lap 145 that also ended his night.

NOTABLE: Polesitter Christopher Bell won Stage 1, while Brendan Gaughan won Stage 2, his first stage win of the season. … Elliott Sadler made his 800th career NASCAR start across all three major series (Cup, Xfinity and Trucks).

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “We had four fresh tires and I just feel like we should have had a victory. I thought the odds were in our favor. … I feel like we gave one away here. It’s going to be a tough one to swallow.” – Third-place finisher Tyler Reddick.

WHAT’S NEXT: Firecracker 250, June 30, 7:30 p.m. ET, Daytona International Speedway.

Follow @JerryBonkowski