Delivering Hamlin back in the hunt
Posted: Monday, May 10, 2010 5:32 pm
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — It was just six races ago that Denny Hamlin’s championship chances were being seriously questioned.
His season started off slowly, he was headed for surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee and the preseason pick to dethrone Jimmie Johnson had slipped to longshot status.
Well, guess who’s back?
Hamlin, the driver of the FedEx Toyota, continued his quest to prove his doubters wrong by becoming the first driver in 17 years to sweep Darlington Raceway. His win Saturday night was his third in the last six races — second since his March 31st knee surgery — tying him with four-time defending champion Johnson for most in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hamlin, who has moved from 15th to sixth in the standings during that span, is now the hottest driver in the series.
The only concern now: Is he peaking too early? The championship is decided over the final 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, and Hamlin needs to be at his best then if he’s going to end Johnson’s reign.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am about us winning right now because I know what our team is capable of when we get to Chase time,” he said. “We are running last year’s cars for the most part, and we’re just kind of easing our way into it. We didn’t expect this success, but we felt like we could contend for race wins and maybe get one here or there in the first 12.
“We’ll see what happens. It’s very encouraging for me that we’re winning right now under the circumstances.”
Crew chief Mike Ford had a plan to roll out his best Toyotas later in the season — the Joe Gibbs Racing team circled Indianapolis in July as the time to start its surge — that the No. 11 crew is confident they’ll still be running strong when the stakes are the highest.
“Knowing what we’ve got coming later in the season, what we’re working on … honestly, I’m surprised how strong we are right now,” Ford said. “Not to spill the beans, but we’re working on Chase stuff right now. We’re racing things that we were racing at the end of last year so we can concentrate on the later months of this year.”
It’s certainly working, as Hamlin, winner of the Nationwide Series race Friday night, became the first driver since Mark Martin in 1993 to sweep the Darlington weekend.
It was Hamlin’s first victory at NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway, and he’s finished lower than 13th in his five career starts at the difficult track.
This one was aided by late race mistakes that took Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon out of contention.
“We had a top-two car all day,” Hamlin said. “Us, Jeff and the other Jeff were really strong.”
Hamlin led 104 of the 367 laps, but knew he was going to have to contend with both Gordon and Burton over the closing laps.
That changed during the final pit stops.
Gordon planned to pit early under green, but had to abort the effort at the last second to avoid a collision with the cars closing quickly behind him.
When he finally entered pit road a lap later, a spin by David Reutimann brought out the last caution of the race and Gordon had to hustle back onto the track to avoid losing a lap at that time.
“When we were ready to come in and pit a little early, I just didn’t signal the guys behind me in time and I was going to get run over. My fault,” Gordon said. “I don’t like making mistakes like that.”
All the leaders headed to pit road under yellow and Burton, who had traded the lead with Hamlin right before the caution, came out in third. Only NASCAR flagged him for running over his air hose, Burton had to return to the pits for a penalty, and lost a ton of track position.
Hamlin restarted in first with 20 laps to go, while Gordon was 12th and Burton 13th.
Hamlin got a terrific restart in his Toyota over teammate Kyle Busch, then sailed to his third win of this season to tie four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson for most wins this season in the Cup series.
“You can’t put this in words,” Hamlin said. “Just an unbelievable night. Pit road did a phenomenal job getting me back on the track first, and that’s what led to this win. We went back and forth all night and fine-tuned it to perfection at the end. Right there at the end, it was the best it’s been all night. That’s all you can ask for.”
Jamie McMurray started from the pole and finished second in a Chevrolet, while Kurt Busch was third in a Dodge. Gordon came back from a late-race error to finish fourth, while Juan Pablo Montoya, McMurray’s teammate, rounded out the top five.
Kevin Harvick held on to his lead in the Sprint Cup standings by finishing sixth. Harvick was up by 10 points over Johnson heading into Darlington, and extended it to an impressive 110 points after Johnson’s miserable night ended in a crash — his third DNF of the season — and a 36th-place finish.
Kyle Busch was seventh, Burton rebounded to finish eighth, and Ryan Newman and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 10.