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Denny Hamlin's third win of the spring shows he's a championship contender once again | NASCAR Racing Breaking News: Trackside Live, Every Week, Every Sprint Cup Race - MikeMulhern.net

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Denny Hamlin's third win of the spring shows he's a championship contender once again


  Denny Hamlin crawls out of Mike Ford's Toyota in Darlington's victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
  

    By Mike Mulhern
    mikemulhern.net

    DARLINGTON, S.C.
    Jimmie Johnson, DNF?
    Another DNF?
    His third DNF of the season, and it's only May?
    Yep, and this time when Johnson's mangled car was being hauled back to the NASCAR garage, some in the Darlington Raceway crowd, of some 70,000, actually cheered, as odd as that might sound, about the good-guy four-time champ, who has dominated stock car racing the past four years.
    And at midnight Saturday it was Denny Hamlin celebrating the Southern 500 victory, his third Sprint Cup tour win of the season – matching him with Johnson this year and showing he and crew chief Mike Ford are clearly back on championship track.
    A dramatic win at Martinsville....knee surgery....a bum Phoenix, though he gutted it out...a rocking win at Texas...a solid fourth at Talladega...an off-Richmond...now a sprint-away win at legendary Darlington.
    Now the ominous part:
    "We're actually working on (new) cars for the last half of this season, for the chase, and we're just racing the same stuff we were racing last year, so I'm really surprised we're running as strong as we are," crew chief Ford says.
    Ominous indeed.
    Knee surgery?
    Shades of Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man: "We can rebuild him....."
    Maybe Hamlin should give the doc a little bonus now.
    "I felt surprisingly really, really well with it, the knee, before the race," Hamlin was saying while celebrating far into the night after the four-hour marathon. "It felt as good as it ever has.
    "It really is pretty much like a physical therapy session in there -- you have a little vibration on the steering column, so I rest my leg against it, and it kind of acts as a stimulator. It feels good after races.
     "It's during the week that I'm laying around that it gets all stiff."

    For J. D. Gibbs, the team manager, Hamlin's first Darlington Cup win was a milestone of another sort too: "This is where we first gave Denny a tryout, six years ago, in a Nationwide car. We came down here and let him test, and he tore everything up, and I was thinking 'This isn't going too well.' But then he finished eighth in that race. And that was the impetus for us to put him in a Nationwide car full time the following year."
    Now Hamlin, who was something of a rookie sensation on the Cup tour when he advanced in 2006, is in the thick of it for the championship.
   In fact Hamlin was a pre-season pick to start out title-strong, after last fall's surging finish. But his first few weeks of action didn't go so well. And that left knee injury, twisted in a January game of basketball, was becoming increasingly aggravating. Finally, instead of waiting for the post-season for surgical repair, Hamlin went for the knife five weeks ago, taking advantage of the Easter break.

    This Hamlin is a new Hamlin, no longer a frustrated driver.
    "During the course of my career I felt I missed out on a lot of wins...probably 10 the first two years, that I should not have lost had I had the mindset that I have right now on what it takes to win.
     "I think the only difference before when we weren't winning as much, to what we're doing right now, is just my mindset -- and knowing what I need to do to win the race at the end.
    "The excitement level is not there...the heart rate is not nearly as high as it used to be. I would just have maybe a bad stop or something, and I would instantly peak...and it would affect on-track performance...then I'd get caught up in a wreck.
    "I'm more patient now on the track....even though at times it seems like there's maybe an aggressive move here or there.
     "I am well in control of my destiny throughout the day, even when things go bad.
     "I've just learned you don't have to win these races in the first half. You just want to be somewhere around that top-eight or so the first half, then somewhere around the top-five with a hundred to go.
     "You don't need to panic when you're not in the lead the whole race.
     "To me that's just a different mindset. When I need to push the envelope, I have the car to do it...especially at the end."
    And this win was, well, vintage Hamlin: "I knew right from the first run of the day we had a very strong car.
     "At that point it's just all about conserving your equipment for the end of the race.
    "We chose to take four tires more than a lot of guys did during the course of the day. So you saw us go back to 10th at times. But we always kept good tires on the car. That set us up for a charge to the front."
    The last stop, with 30 miles to go, Hamlin and Ford could thus easily take just two...which gave them track position up front, when their rivals took four.
   "Other guys kept taking two tires over and over again (during the race), so their lefts were so old, and I knew if we could get the jump on that last restart, we should have no problem," Hamlin said.
     "From there, it was clear sailing."
   

  
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   Crew chief Mike Ford's over-the-wall gang did good work all night for Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   

Though, I'm not really a

Though, I'm not really a Toyota fan, you gotta admit there's something going on in that JGR camp. I think it's maturity. A couple of years ago, both Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, in a heartbeat would throw the pit crew under the bus if they lost positions or a race on pit road. Now, they seem to shrug it off, pick up their marbles and play another day.

Maybe that's how Jimmie Johnson does it with the #48 team.

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