Denny Hamlin came out on top after a tight battle with Kevin Harvick to win the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. With his 18th career win, Hamlin also takes the Sprint Cup points lead as the series heads to Las Vegas next Sunday.
After a difficult 2011 that saw Hamlin and his FedEx team struggle with consistency, engine reliability and only one victory, 2012 brought a renewed spirit and a new crew chief. 2011 Sprint Cup Championship crew chief Darian Grubb moved from Stewart-Haas Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing, becoming Hamlin’s crew chief and his addition has made Hamlin an instant contender.
After leading the most laps at Daytona last week and finishing fourth, the team had momentum coming into one of the tougher tracks on the schedule. 53-year-old Mark Martin put his Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota on pole and 2011 Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart was alongside for the start.
Jimmie Johnson, smarting from a 42nd place finish at Daytona and a penalty for illegal parts left the five-time champion with negative points coming into Phoenix, took the advantage early in the race from Stewart and Martin. Kevin Harvick gave Johnson a run and the two drivers were the strongest through most of the race.
Kyle Busch used pit strategy, taking two tires under a lap 111 caution for a Casey Mears crash in turn one, to take the lead from Johnson, who took four tires. A subsequent caution for a three-car wreck between A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray cost Johnson more, with issues on the right rear tire leaving him 24th.
Hamlin slowly worked his way through the field and took the lead on a lap 254 and battled Harvick until his Rheem Chevy ran out of fuel coming to the white flag. Harvick was able to hold onto second while Hamlin pulled away to the victory. Hamlin’s Toyota was one of five in the top-ten, along with teammates Kyle Busch (6th), Joey Logano (10th) and Michael Waltrip Racing drivers Martin (9th) and New Jersey’s Martin Truex, Jr (7th). Hamlin takes a six-point lead into Las Vegas next Sunday over Greg Biffle, who has two third-place finishes this season, eight over Harvick and ten over Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.