Hamlin in the chase

Gutsy win puts him among the title candidates

March 31, 2010|By Tania Ganguli Tribune newspapers

Just as doubts began to arise about his potential and whether he could challenge Jimmie Johnson for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Denny Hamlin showed just how much he wanted it.

Were you in utter shock when the two Joe Gibbs Racing cars, Hamlin's and Kyle Busch's, pitted while leading Monday's race at Martinsville with 10 laps to go, and nobody went with them?

Did you gasp when Hamlin bulldozed his way to fourth by the time another caution was called?

That No. 11 team sure has a flair for the dramatic.

"I told (crew chief Mike Ford) for the record, I never doubted him," JGR President J.D. Gibbs said. "But in reality I was cussing him up top the pit box."

Hamlin got his first victory of the season at Martinsville in a race postponed by rain. Ford's call worked out, giving Hamlin the push he needed with fresh tires to zoom through the field.

But it was not why the No. 11 team won. It won because Martinsville is Hamlin's house.

And if there was any time for him to stand up and announce he is a legitimate contender for this year's championship, it was then.

Hamlin had suffered tire problems all season and hadn't run especially well regardless. Short-track season didn't begin well for him either with a 19th-place finish at Bristol.

Then on Monday, just as Hamlin built a commanding lead, Ford told him to pit, give up the lead and take a chance.

"This is probably the most gratifying win I've had, simply because we came through adversity so many times, whether it be because of pit road or that dash at the end," Hamlin said. "We just flat out drove through 'em at the end."

A NASCAR season is long, but it doesn't take long for a lackluster start to turn into a season-long funk. Take Carl Edwards or Dale Earnhardt Jr. for example.

Next up for Hamlin is knee surgery. He has driven all year on a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and doctors have told him continuing to do so without repair could do permanent damage.

He'll have the surgery this week with the Sprint Cup series taking the weekend off.


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