The two-car draft was back Sunday afternoon at the Talladega Superspeedway. Along with it came the unique challenges it presents to drivers as they try to push their drafting partners to the front with limited visibility and the risk of hitting them off-center and spinning them out. Throughout the day, all three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas took their turn at the front of the pack as they worked together in the draft.
Denny Hamlin started the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota in the 29th position, but quickly made it to the front early in the day. As was the case for many drivers, Hamlin would charge to the front, then drop to the rear as other cars found momentum in the two-car tandem draft. He found himself working with the No. 39 car for much of the race, which proved successful until the No. 39 had trouble late in the event. Hamlin avoided several incidents, but received minor damage to his car in the final incident of the day with roughly 15 laps to go. The FedEx Office crew was able to repair the car sufficiently for the final run at the win. With four laps remaining, Hamlin was hooked with JGR teammate Joey Logano in 12th place, but lost the draft when he got out of the throttle to avoid the No. 34 car who almost spun ahead of him. Hamlin would end up 23rd. The finish enabled Hamlin to gain three spots in the point standings, moving to 17th.
Kyle Busch started the No. 18 M&Ms Pretzel Candies Toyota in the 34th position and made it clear that he had a car capable of running up front and winning the race. Busch led several laps and spent many more pushing other cars to the first position. On lap 140 misfortunes struck Busch while he was being pushed by teammate Joey Logano. As Busch and Logano shot to the high side in tandem to pass another pair of drivers, their bumpers made contact off of center sending the No. 18 car spinning into traffic in the low line and eventually into the wall down the backstretch. The incident is often unavoidable given the type of racing seen at restrictor plate races with the current rule package. Neither driver considered the other to be at fault. The crew was able to make enough repairs to the car to return to the race for a few laps before finally settling for a 35th place finish. His troubles relegated him to 6th place in the series point standings.
Joey Logano started the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota in the 36th position and was able to clinch his first top-10 finish of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Logano showed patience and skill on Sunday. At times he would suggest to his veteran drafting partners that they hold steady together at the back of the pack to avoid the mayhem of the lead group. Other times during the race, Logano charged to the front, leading laps and gaining one bonus point in his Race to the Chase. Near the end of the race, Logano had positioned himself perfectly to make a charge for the win with teammate Denny Hamlin. However, when Hamlin became disconnected from the draft, Logano’s momentum was interrupted and he was forced to pair with the No. 34 car. When the checkered flag flew Logano was in 10th and had gained four spots in the point standings to 24th.
In one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history Jimmie Johnson captured the victory, while Clint Bowyer was second, Jeff Gordon third, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fourth and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five. There were 6 cautions for a total of 24 laps and 88 lead changes among 24 different drivers over the course of the 188-lap race.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will take a week off to celebrate the Easter holiday, before returning to Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night, April 30. The race in Richmond will begin at 7:30 PM ET with live, high-definition coverage provided by FOX beginning with its pre-race show at 7 PM ET. The NASCAR Nationwide Series will run next week in Nashville on Saturday, April 23 at 3 PM televised live on ESPN starting at 2 PM.