In the highly precise world of NASCAR, even the smallest change can give one team the technical edge. For Denny Hamlin, it may have been Mother Nature that helped him out on his way to winning the STP 400.
Clouds covered the skies just about all day, and the race was clearly Martin Truex Jr.'s to lose. Truex led for 173 of 267 laps, but Hamlin led when it counted - at the end.
The change in position might have had something to do with the weather. Once the sun began shining through the clouds, Hamlin's engine appeared to roar to life. The car isn't run by solar panels, but a few degrees difference in temperature can mean a lot in NASCAR, and Hamlin's vehicle clearly did better when the skies were clear.
"I felt like our car was maybe one of the best cars in practice when the sun was out," Hamlin told USA Today after the race. "It was probably 70 degrees, and the track was slick when the sun came out (Sunday). It put our car back to right where it was in practice."
Truex didn't comment on the weather after the race, but did point to his tires as a source of frustration. After a pit stop toward the end of the race, Truex got a new set of tires, and the driver said that they simply weren't performing as well as the previous ones. Despite several attempts to pass Hamlin on the final laps, Truex just couldn't generate the speed to get around him.
"I don't know what happened with the last set of tires - they were terrible," Truex told the news source. "I couldn't go at all... there was really no rhyme or reason to it."
The loss was a disappointing one for Truex and the Michael Waltrip Racing team, which uses Toyota vehicles. Toyota cars were clearly the best on the track, as Hamlin also competes in a Toyota, although his team is Joe Gibbs Racing. In previous NASCAR seasons, there was always a bit of tension between the teams. Joe Gibbs' squad was seen as the top Toyota outfit in NASCAR, but Michael Waltrip's team has come on strong in recent years.
On Sunday, there appeared to be a camaraderie developing between the Toyota teams, reports ESPN. In a show of sportsmanship, Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs was almost immediately at Truex's car after the race, patting Truex on the back even though he technically competes for a rival team. Like most of the analysts, Gibbs believed Truex had the race in the bag and knew the driver would be disappointed he couldn't pick up his first win in five years.
"It was a good day for Toyota because Michael Waltrip Racing [and] Joe Gibbs Racing has a bond that's working better and better together… so we're starting to see these Toyotas start to make a run," Hamlin told ESPN.
It wasn't all disappointment for Truex and his team. Although Truex hasn't won a race yet this season, the second-place finish bumped him to second in the overall standings, right behind Greg Biffle, who finished fifth. Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth were third and fourth, respectively, and Kenseth is now third in the overall standings.
Hamlin is fifth in the standings and will seek to keep his momentum alive as the racing series heads to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, next week.