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If Denny Hamlin is 'only 60 percent,' then when he's back to 100 percent.....

 Now Denny Hamlin is fired up! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   Consider these numbers that Denny Hamlin put up on the board the opening weeks of the season: 17, 29, 19, 21, 19....and then ask who in the world would be picking him as a championship contender this season.
   Well, Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford are finally on track, and despite that twisted knee, and surgery March 31st, Joe Gibbs' guys have now won two of the last three Sprint Cup tour events, adding the Texas 500 Monday to last weekend's Phoenix 600K.
    This one was a doozy. Stock car fans this season certainly can't say they're not getting their money's worth....just don't ask Jeff Gordon what he's thinking about it all right now, after losing a couple of big events he thought he should have had in the bag – including this one.
    Monday was all Gordon, until one of those late race yellows changed up things, with two-tire stops versus four-tire stops – which led to a big crash with less than 30 miles to go that sent Gordon and Tony Stewart and a lot of other stars back to the garage early.
    Hamlin, on the other hand, took advantage of that melee to carve an edge, which he managed to hold, barely, over late-closing Jimmie Johnson for a three-length win.
    Credit a good call by Ford: "We watched guys take two tires earlier in the race and knew what to expect. With the possibility of tire issues, we didn't want to be aggressive...so we waited till the end to get two tires, and it worked out for us."
    "Usually I'm one of the worst when it comes down to a shootout," Hamlin said. "I never seem to gain positions. 
    "But this year I have gotten better at getting the maximum out of the car at the end of the races.
    "I think it's just my driving style is so conservative...."
    Well, Hamlin is not all that conservative at the wheel, rivals will say. But compared to teammate Kyle Busch he is.
    "Styles like Kyle's gets you more wins," Hamlin said. "But it also gets you in a little bit more trouble."
    Down the stretch it was Hamlin versus Busch, until Johnson launched his charge.
    On the key restart with 25 miles to go, Jeff Burton was the leader. "Once Burton gave me that outside line, I was going to be able to do something with it," Hamlin said. "I saw on the previous restart he struggled getting through the first corner. If I could just hang right there on his outside I could clear him through three and four."
    Hamlin did, and he was gone.
    The way Hamlin and Ford finished 2009, they got the nod as favorites in this year's title chase. But they started the season quite slowly.
    And some of that might have been Hamlin's knee, which he twisted in late January in a pickup basketball game.
    Hamlin figures he's only about 60 percent with the knee right now. 

   Phoenix was the low point of the season for Denny Hamlin, here icing his knee (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    But he didn't blame that 30th at Phoenix on his knee; the electrical system in his car burned the battery, costing him two laps for repairs.
    At the start of the season Hamlin planned to wait till the end of the season for surgery. But just before Martinsville he changed those plans: "I did this for September. If I did it now, come chase time -- if I'm lucky enough to be one of those top 12 -- it was going to make me more prepared to make a run for the championship."
    And maybe those high pre-season hopes didn't play in his favor: "It's tough, because you do have big expectations at the start of the season.
    "But I told everyone on media day if we don't set the world on fire for the first six months, it's okay. We're going to ease into our season and try to learn, and work on some stuff for later in the year.
     "Obviously with no test sessions we've got to test during race weekend. So we're experimenting with different stuff.  Some is working, some isn't.
    "But we've never hit the panic button. We've never been down on ourselves because we haven't gotten to the expectations a lot of people put on us at the beginning of the year...and I put on my self."
    Ford conceded the first few weeks of the season have been "a roller coaster. But for 90 percent of the people out here, it's the same.
    "The first few races we definitely struggled; we were off on performance. Then at Atlanta we had a good car but cut a tire down. At Bristol we were going to have a good run, and again cut a tire down.
    "Then we go to Martinsville, knowing Denny's going to have surgery. We win, and you get a little high...then a kick back down knowing Phoenix is going to be very difficult.
    "It's very hard to keep morale up. But he stuck with us through Phoenix, when we had had some issues.
     "I think you've seen the strength of the team in the last three weeks."
    But Talladega? Well, at least that shouldn't too physically demanding on his knee.
    "Hopefully I can really take a week off with it in Talladega...as long as I don't go on my head and upside down and through the fence," Hamlin said.
   By Richmond the following week "I should be able to walk normal," Hamlin said.

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   Crew chief Mike Ford (L) and Denny Hamlin: pain, but no panic. Now two wins in their last three tour starts (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Gooooo Denny!!! Stay outta

Gooooo Denny!!! Stay outta trouble this week at talladega and you'll have Johnson looking over his shoulder for you every week.

#11 = two #1's pushed together

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