Focused Denny 1st to checkered flag again
Posted: Monday, June 14, 2010 5:04 pm
By: By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — Sitting in his trailer on Saturday night trying to watch a movie, Denny Hamlin couldn’t concentrate.
Sorry, too much going on these days.
“I constantly am thinking … my mind is racing of what we can do to make the car better,” Hamlin said.
Judging by the way Hamlin crushed the field at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, the answer appears to be: not much.
Hamlin rolled to his second straight win and fifth of the season by easily pulling away from Kasey Kahne on a late restart to extend a dominant run that began in March at Martinsville. He’s now won half of the last 10 races, his No. 11 Toyota apparently getting stronger as summer approaches.
“It seems like I used to go into every season thinking, ’We ought to get a couple wins, Martinsville, Pocono,”’ Hamlin said. “Now it’s just show up and, hey, we can win. That to me is just a feeling I don’t think we’ve ever had before.”
He might want to get used to it. Hamlin was so strong on Sunday, leading 123 of 200 laps, he hardly blinked when a late caution for debris erased his 10-second lead over Kahne.
No biggie. Hamlin seemed to toy with Kahne off the restart. Kahne held tough for three laps before Hamlin put him firmly in the rearview mirror.
“I didn’t like watching him drive away from me, but I wasn’t surprised when he did,” said Kahne. “I thought we had a really good car … the 11 was just a touch better.”
Kahne highlighted a resurgent day for Ford by finishing second, followed by pole-sitter Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson was sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seventh.
They all, however, were merely bystanders as Hamlin continued to stamp himself as the driver most likely to end Johnson’s lengthy reign atop the series.
“Now I know how Jimmy’s felt the last four years,” Hamlin said.
And unlike his exuberant celebration at Pocono, Hamlin kept his machine in one piece. Hamlin put a damper on the victory party last week when he smacked the wall while doing a postrace burnout.
This time, his car rolled into Victory Lane in pristine condition.
“There were specific instructions not to wreck,” Hamlin said with a laugh.
Not exactly good news for the rest of the series, which finds itself scrambling to keep up. Hamlin’s only hiccup came when he temporarily lost fuel pressure following a pit stop about midway through the race.
He promised his team he’d “get it back.” Minutes later he was in the lead.
Though Hamlin remains third in points behind Kevin Harvick with 11 races to go before the Chase begins, the bonus points from his five victories would have him in first if the Chase started today.
Hamlin stressed winning is more difficult than he’s made it look.
“The way we’re performing now goes back six months, a year from now,” he said. “We’ve worked very, very hard to get to this spot right now.”
It’s a spot where Hamlin feels he can win whenever he slides into the car. The track. The distance. The weather doesn’t seem to matter.
A week after surviving NASCAR’s version of overtime, Hamlin cruised during a relatively quiet race that lacked some of the fireworks that have peppered the series of late.
A week after Joey Logano and Harvick created waves during a postrace dustup, there were no flare-ups in the Irish Hills. Logano, who raced without his father Tom in attendance after he was involved in the uproar, finished 10th while Harvick struggled with his car all day and wound up 19th.
The two found themselves running side-by-side for a short stretch early on, with Logano’s spotter telling the 20-year-old to give Harvick room so he could make the pass. Logano went back by Harvick moments later.
“I was focused straight ahead all the time,” Logano said. “It wasn’t distracting. I do a good job on focusing out on all that stuff.”
Kahne’s performance highlighted a resurgent day for Ford. The manufacturer still hasn’t won a race since last fall, but placed five drivers in the top 14. All five were using the new FR9 engine designed to put Ford back in the win column.
Kahne sang the engine’s praises, saying it felt like he was driving on a level playing field for the first time in awhile.
“I didn’t feel like we were at a disadvantage,” he said.
Earnhardt’s finish was his best since Bristol in early spring and though his winless streak stretched to 72 races, he remains upbeat.
“It was fun to drive,” Earnhardt said. “We felt like we had a top 10 car and we were able to show it today.”
Still, Hamlin’s stroll to the checkered flag only highlighted the growing chasm between Joe Gibbs Racing and the rest of the teams. JGR has won seven of the past 10 races overall and seems to be a step ahead of everyone else when it comes to racing with the spoiler after NASCAR ditched the hated rear wing earlier this season.
Despite his hot streak, Hamlin is trying not to get carried away.
There’s a long summer to get through, however, before the real season begins. He watched Kyle Busch steamroll through the regular season in 2008 only to flame out in the playoffs.
Still, for a season that started with Hamlin running in the middle of the pack and included knee surgery after getting hurt while playing basketball, he’s not complaining.
“It’s just funny for me,” he said. “It’s like the more success we get, the hungrier it makes me to try to win again.”