Follow me on

Twitter Feed Facebook Feed RSS Feed Linked In Youtube

Denny Hamlin has the edge, the lead, and championship momentum, with two to go

  Denny Hamlin at the finish line, winning Sunday's Texas 500 in a thriller over Matt Kenseth...on a wild day in the wild, wild West (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   FORT WORTH, Texas

   Okay, maybe it's not 1979 all over again.
   And Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon aren't classic bull-nosed stock car racers like Cale Yarborough and Donnie and Bobby Allison.
   But Sunday's action here – and not just the Gordon versus Burton bump and shove – may be just what the TV doctors ordered to perk up the NASCAR world, in what has been a rather sluggish fall chase.

   Well, the chase itself of course isn't sluggish, no sireee, not at all.
   In fact Denny Hamlin's win here in Sunday's Texas 500, in quite a shootout with Texas Motor Speedway star Matt Kenseth, and another ragged, even bizarre, afternoon for Jimmie 'Four-time' Johnson propelled Hamlin atop the Sprint Cup standings with just the Phoenix 312 and Homestead-Miami 400 left on the NASCAR tour this season.
   It's the first time since 2005 that Johnson hasn't gone to Phoenix with the tour lead. And that was the season he lost the championship to Tony Stewart...the last man to win it before Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus went on their four-straight rampage.
   Can Johnson come back and take a fifth title?
  Well, certainly. He does his best when his back is against the wall.
   And his back isn't really against the wall at all: Hamlin's lead is a scant 33 points – the difference between winning at Phoenix and finishing fifth.
  And Johnson's finishing average at the flat Phoenix one-mile is astonishing 4.9 since 2005, and over the past four years, with four wins. And in his last eight races at Phoenix Johnson's finishing average has been a sizzling 2.1.
   Nevertheless Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford sense the momentum of this chase has just changed dramatically, in their favor.
   In fact Ford boldly claimed that Knaus' decision to 'bench' his pit crew midway through the race and bring over Gordon's crew for the rest of the race would eventually be seen as the crucial moment in what Ford predicts to become Hamlin's first NASCAR championship.
   Still, all wasn't calm and cool in the Joe Gibbs camp. Kyle Busch saw to that. After a speeding-on-pit-road penalty, Busch angrily gestured his displeasure from inside the car at NASCAR...action that was unfortunately caught on an in-car camera.
   NASCAR quickly dunned Busch two laps....a move that some might question as excessive.
   "I'm sorry I lost my cool, to everybody on this team, to everybody at NASCAR and all of my guys that support me," Busch said. "It's just so frustrating --   you have such a fast car, and then you get spun out...and you don't expect to lose your cool.
   "I got spun out and everything went downhill from there. I apologize to all my guys for letting them down and for getting so behind that we could never make it up."
   J. D. Gibbs, the team manager, shrugged it off: "It's just he did something that got caught on TV. Everyone saw it...and I think it was their way of saying 'Hey, here's our game. If you want to play, here's the rules you play by.'
    "I'd be surprised if there's any more penalties coming.
   "Every driver we've had has been passionate about what they do.  They express it different ways.  We went through a lot of the same issues when Tony Stewart was driving for us."
   Third Gibbs teammate Joey Logano, on the other hand, stayed out of trouble and again finished well, continuing a late season surge for second-year driver.
   But the headliner was Hamlin, who insists that he's kept his cool throughout this season and that that has been key for him.
   "I'm going to continue to just race relaxed. Honestly, I think back to a couple years ago, and even late in these restarts I don't get excited anymore.  I just don't let things get to me much anymore, and just race relaxed. 
    "I was more nervous at the very first chase race in New Hampshire, than I was from then to this point. 
    "We're on the cusp of our first championship, and as long as we keep doing what we've been doing, we should be okay."
     A league-leading eight wins now. "Unbelievable," Hamlin said. "Absolutely unbelievable. 
   "I had to drive my heart out to do it.  That was the first win I've gotten -- other than maybe Martinsville -- where I had to just drive the crap out of the car in the last few laps. 
    "But I love racing Matt Kenseth; there's no better person I'd rather have on the inside of me."
   Kenseth, still winless this season, was admittedly overdriving the corners at the end, and nearly tagged the wall heading to the white, giving the lead  back to Hamlin.
    "I told everyone I’d wait for three to go...and I felt that's the most aggressive I've been on restarts all year," Hamlin said. 
   But it took Hamlin a while Sunday to get in gear. "At the beginning of the race we were struggling. We were running 25th and I can't go anywhere."
    Gibbs admitted he was "kind of panicked" with Hamlin's slow start. "But you listen to Denny and you watch Mike, and they're not worried. They're just calm and collected.
   "It was encouraging to watch that and for it to pay off."
   Ford conceded the day "was a lot of work.  We weren't that good to get started, but we knew in practice we had a good car, and if we could get it close, it was going to have speed.
    "The last two races here we haven't qualified well, so I really wasn't that worried.
     "But we adjusted probably more than 90 percent of the races so far this year."

    The final restart came with three to go, Hamlin and Kenseth side by side.  
    "Restarts have been my Achilles Heel all chase long...all year long," Hamlin fretted.  "I just can't seem to get it together."
    So the game plan was to side-draft Kenseth and keep him from getting position to clear him in a pass off the corner.
   Part of that work, but still Kenseth was able to get in front in the middle of turns one and two.
    "He did it by gassing up really aggressively, and early, and I knew it was going to be a hard time for him to exit the corner that way," Hamlin said.
   "He obviously ran out of race track (tagged the wall lightly), and it opened up the door for us to cross over. 
    "It was great to win a race that way.  I love racing for a win like that. 
     "Any driver will tell you if there's one guy you're going to trust underneath you, it's Matt."

    And now Phoenix, which Hamlin concedes has been "an up and down track for me.
    "I've got to really be focused on practice day to get what I need to give Mike the information I need, and just stay focused.
    "But I'm not going to be conservative having the lead.  I'm going to want to stretch that out before we get to Homestead."
    But given Johnson's record that probably won't happen.
   In fact, the odds favor Johnson to finish second, for Hamlin to finish eighth, and for Harvick to finish 12th.
   That would send Hamlin to Homestead for the finale with a 5-point lead over Johnson and an 74-point lead over Harvick.

   Eight! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.

© 2010-2011 www.mikemulhern.net All rights reserved.
Web site by www.webdesigncarolinas.com