Tom Sorensen

Denny Hamlin’s pit crew key to $1 million all-star check

Denny Hamlin won NASCAR’s all-star race and a million dollars Saturday night, and with that money he should dole out some hefty bonuses to his pit crew.

Hamlin’s crew turned in a couple of gorgeous stops Saturday – helping him win the pole for the Sprint all-star race early in the evening and then getting him to the front again with a fantastic four-tire pit stop that preceded the final 10-lap shootout.

Said Hamlin: “What an awesome night. Everything came together. ... The pit crew just knocked it out of the park. That was a prime-time, under-pressure performance that they did there.”

Hamlin entered the final round of mandatory pit stops in sixth place, but his crew’s sensational effort moved him up to first. Hamlin then took that final lead and ran away with it, holding off a moderate challenge from Kevin Harvick to take the victory.

Michael Jordan, who is a buddy of Hamlin’s, used to have his own supporting cast in Chicago that helped him win six NBA championships. Hamlin had his own versions of Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman on Saturday night, as the pit crew supervised by crew chief Dave Rogers had one of those seamless nights that everyone in NASCAR wants.

“Congrats to Denny,” said Brad Keselowski, who was caught speeding off pit road trying to get in front of Hamlin just before the final shootout began. “Their pit stops were phenomenal and easily won them this race.”

Keselowski said in his opinion that the driver that began the shootout in front would have no chance of being overtaken due to the clean air, which is why he gambled with going faster on pit road than he should have.

Hamlin didn’t have to gamble. His pit crew was so good that he just needed to bring it home after the final pit stop.

NASCAR tweaks the format of the all-star race about as often as your teenager sends a text, which is OK. There are no actual points on the line.

The point is to entertain and have fun – kind of like the NBA skills competitions, except there’s a lot more money on the line. The race winner does take home that million dollars, a fact that is emphasized approximately one million times on the TV coverage.

The drivers ran four 25-lap segments first. Their average finish in those – along with the speed of the pit crew on that last mandatory four-tire stop – determined what order the 20 drivers started the final 10-lap shootout.

Hamlin started first for the final 10 laps and Kurt Busch was second after Keselowski was caught for speeding.

“A million-dollar mistake,” Darrell Waltrip called it on TV.

The past four all-star winners had all started the final segment in the top two, so it seemed very likely the winner would come from the first row once again.

And that’s what happened. As Keselowski had guessed, Hamlin never was seriously challenged in the last 10 laps and earned Joe Gibbs Racing its first all-star race win. Busch had a bad restart in the shootout and blamed himself for it.

“I was asleep at the wheel,” he said.

Hamlin, meanwhile, was wide awake.

But it was his pit crew that had fixed the breakfast and made the coffee. All Hamlin had to do was go to work for 10 more laps, and he made that part look easy.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

Top 5 finishers

1. Denny Hamlin, Toyota

2. Kevin Harvick, Chevy

3. Kurt Busch, Chevy

4. Jeff Gordon, Chevy

5. Matt Kenseth, Toyota

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