A year ago, Denny Hamlin made his much anticipated return from a back injury to the seat of his No. 11 Toyota at Talladega. It lasted only briefly, before he handed off to relief driver Brian Vickers. The remainder of his season was nothing short of a nightmare, despite a victory in the season finale at Homestead.
Sunday, everything came full circle for the Joe Gibbs Racing competitor. Hamlin moved ahead of Kevin Harvick on the last restart with two laps to go and held the field at bay until a caution flag waved with a lap remaining to win the Aaron's 499. It is Hamlin's first victory of the 2014 campaign, the 24th of his Sprint Cup career, and his first-career points-paying triumph on a superspeedway. Car owner Joe Gibbs claimed his 114th victory and his fourth at Talladega.
Ford chauffeur Greg Biffle took second, ahead of Hamlin's Toyota brethren, the Michael Waltrip Racing Camrys of Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers. A.J. Allmendinger carried the flag for Chevrolet with a fifth-place result. Paul Menard finished sixth ahead of Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Talladega favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 26 laps but faded outside the pack late to avoid any potential trouble and was unable to recover even after it struck.
The race was marred by two major crashes, both similar in nature with first Brad Keselowski and then Jimmie Johnson getting loose in the middle of the pack. There was one key difference, however: Keselowski was six laps down after an early incident with Danica Patrick as they dueled for the lead. His "twenty-feet-over-his-head" style of racing among the leaders only to crash many of them did little to endear one of the sport's more polarizing champions to his peers or the fans. Among the drivers wrapped up in the lap 137 crash were Trevor Bayne, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Cole Whitt, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, polesitter Brian Scott, Menard, and Johnson.
Johnson's accident occurred on the 175th lap, when he got loose and bounced between Stenhouse and Joey Logano. Logano's car went up the hill into defending race champ David Ragan's, setting off another melee that collected Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell.
After Carl Edwards blew a tire and spun in front of Ryan Newman to draw another yellow at lap 183, the field was able to make it nearly to the white flag before more trouble struck. Bowman got a nudge from Newman, turning the Dr. Pepper can sideways as Justin Allgaier went sliding into the grass. Hamlin made it past the white flag before the yellow waved, and it seemed the race might end under green. Unfortunately for Biffle and the other challengers, a large piece of Allgaier's bumper lay in the middle of the frontstretch, near the start finish line, necessitating a caution that gave Hamlin his big win.
Hamlin had been in a bit of a slump since missing the Fontana event due to an eye injury that forced him out of the car. He had not recorded a top-10 finish in the four races since having to yield to Sam Hornish Jr. on the anniversary weekend of his bad crash a year ago. Much the same as he returned to the driver's seat last year at Talladega, he returned to the front of the field with Sunday's performance and seems in good position to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup for an eighth time in nine tries this season.
Gordon retains the points lead by three markers over Kenseth, with both remaining winless after being caught up in Keselowski's spill. Race winners Kyle Busch (who finished 12th), Edwards, Earnhardt, and Logano hold positions 3-6, ahead of the winless quartet of Johnson, Biffle, Newman, and Vickers.