Last year’s Championship Runner-up Scores First Win of 2011

Carl Edwards Continues to Lead the Championship Standings

Championship leader Carl Edwards finished fifth at Michigan in the No. 99 Aflac Ford to maintain his points lead. He started 23rd, quickly moved into the Top 10 and actually led laps toward the end of the race (pohoto courtesy: Jared C. Tilton, Getty Images Sport)

After scoring a Sprint Cup Series season-high eight victories in 2010 and finishing second in the NASCAR Championship standings at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Denny Hamlin won his first race this year at Michigan International Speedway. With the victory, Hamlin scored his fourth Top 5 finish, moving into ninth place in the NASCAR Race to the Chase standings with 15 races of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season in the record books.

After Race 26, the Top 10 drivers plus two wild cards not in the Top 10 who score the highest number of victories will contend for NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup Championship “playoff” system—the winner of which will be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway during Ford Championship Weekend for a 10th consecutive season this fall. Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Hamlin took the lead for the first time with eight laps remaining before NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire and hit the wall to force the fifth and final caution.After the last restart with five laps remaining, Hamlin pulled away from the field, but Matt Kenseth chased Hamlin down and challenged him for the lead on the last lap.

“Everyone knows that we’ve been strong and today we didn’t look as strong as we normally do here, but we got it working there at the end,” Hamlin stated after his 17th career Sprint Cup win. “We made a magic adjustment and the car just took off. This is the point of the season where we really need to start hitting our stride. Hopefully we’ll have another good 10 weeks before the Chase starts.”

Hamlin crossed the finish line just 0.3 seconds ahead of Kenseth, who made slight contact with the wall coming out of the final turn. Sunday’s victory was Hamlin’s first since November 2010 in Texas, seventeen races ago.  It’s Hamlin third Top 10 in his last four starts, which has helped him climb to ninth place in the Sprint Cup Series standings – 77 points behind leader Carl Edwards with eleven races remaining before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins—the winner of which will be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway during Ford Championship Weekend for a 10th consecutive season this fall. Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

“We had a really fast car and thought we had a good chance to win today,” said Kenseth. “I got a bad restart at the end and I got back to Denny but I couldn’t get around him. We were kind of slow for about 10 laps on each restart and then it seemed like we were the best car from 10 until we needed fuel. I just didn’t have enough time to get around him. I tried everything I could and I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

Edwards’ fifth-place finish Sunday enabled him to maintain his hold on first place for the ninth race in a row. Edwards was a popular preseason pick to unseat five-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson this fall when NASCAR crowns a Champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20. Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

“Denny earned this win and those are the rules we are under,” said Edwards. “Track position was huge and I just wish it wasn’t like that.”

A costly restart snafu late in the race cost Kyle Busch an opportunity at victory, but his third-place finish gave Joe Gibbs Racing two of the Top 3 finishing positions.

“We didn’t have a great day with that restart but we turned it into a pretty good one,” Kyle Busch said.

Earnhardt Jr., with a pair of wall scrapes finished 21st, but maintained third place in the points chase. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin caused one of Earnhardt’s wall bangers.

“The defining moment in the race for me probably was getting run into the wall by Mark,” a very dejected Earnhardt said. “We had fixed the car, we were moving forward and we were doing pretty well at that point, but, you can’t do nothing about getting run over or getting run into the wall.”

Martin said, “I don’t have a history of having problems and I don’t think I have one now. I think we’ll get it sorted out. I feel like I give everybody on the race track respect. I made a mistake.”

Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t the only driver to experience on-track issues. Five-time defending NASCAR Champion Johnson also had his difficulties, coming quickly and decisively. He spun out just eight laps into the race, had to have a sway bar replaced, fell two laps behind and couldn’t make it up, finishing 27th. It dropped him from second to fifth in the Championship standings.

“We got turned around early and ground the sway bar off the right front and we lost a couple laps from that and were just kind of in a hole at that point and couldn’t get caught back up. It’s just part of it,” Johnson explained.

Next up for the Sprint Cup drivers is Sonoma on Sunday, June 26 (2 ET, TNT). Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

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