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Redemption! Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb both bouncing back as NASCAR 2012 opens

   Winning again: Denny Hamlin! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Give his new crew chief Darian Grubb a vote of confidence, and check out the re-energized Denny Hamlin, bouncing back strong after a long, long 2011.
   Kevin Harvick, on the charge late and stalking Hamlin relentless in the closing laps, ran out of fuel with a mile to go, and so did Carl Edwards, and Tony Stewart found a flaw in the new engine fuel injection systems. And Hamlin held on to win Sunday's Phoenix 500K, under sunny skies, on a crash-marred afternoon at Phoenix International Raceway.

  That was Grubb's first NASCAR tour win Hamlin and car owner Joe Gibbs.
  And the victory, following Hamlin's surprising fourth at Daytona, puts him atop the NASCAR standings heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for next Sunday's 500, Round 3 of the 36-race season.
   Grubb, remember, crewed Tony Stewart to five wins in last year's final 10 race, and the Sprint Cup championship. And Stewart, at the end of the season, inexplicably dropped Grubb -- who wound up with Hamlin and Gibbs.
   And Hamlin, remember, came to this Phoenix track just a little over a year ago, in November 2010, with the NASCAR tour points lead, and with the Cup title in his sights.
   Hamlin dominated the Phoenix race that afternoon, right up till the final 20 miles, when crew chief Mike Ford misjudged the gas mileage end-game. That issue cost Hamlin and Ford the championship that appeared theirs for the taking.
   As he tried to get his engine cranked up for a post-race burnout, Hamlin radioed Grubb "Thank you for making me competitive again."
   Hamlin, possibly still  down from the 2010 Phoenix-Homestead problems, never seemed to get in gear through most of 2011. He did win once, but he was rarely a factor on Sundays, and he never had much of a chance in the playoffs.


   Darian Grubb's first win with Denny Hamlin and car owner Joe Gibbs. Grubb has now won six of the last 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup races. Somebody owes him a raise...maybe an apology? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Hamlin had a weak SpeedWeeks at Daytona, right up till the Daytona 500, in which he led the most laps, just one week ago. Now this, and Hamlin suddenly looks like a major power on the stock car circuit again.
   Hamlin has pointed out he's not usually a strong starter when a season opens.
  "At the beginning of the day I'd have settled for a top-15 finish," Hamlin said. "But we just kept working on the car, and it kept getting better."
   Hamlin's performance over the past eight days
  "This is huge momentum," Hamlin said. "We've never been in this position before; it usually takes us five or six races to hit our stride.
   "And this is not particularly my type of race track, with the new pavement. I'm usually better when we have to save tires."
    Harvick, one of the sport's best closers, was indeed closing on Hamlin in the final miles, only to run out with barely a lap to go, as he was closing on Hamlin's rear bumper.
   But Harvick was full of praise for his crew -- new this season, headed by Shane Wilson. "To run second, at a place where we ran 25th last year...To come to a track where we struggled last year and this time to race for the win, I'm hoping this sets the tone for the year.
   "We were really nervous about how we might run here."
   So last summer's bugaboo -- too many gas mileage finishes -- has once again reared its head.
   However Harvick didn't miss a beat in giving Wilson a pat on the back: "When you cut the fuel mileage that close, you're on the mark."


When Tony Stewart needs a push, well, that's not a good sign. The new electronic fuel injection systems may have a few bugs to tweak (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Jimmie Johnson, trying to use the heavy NASCAR penalty on crew chief Chad Knaus as momentum here, dominated early "but unfortunately we had a little hiccup on pit road, and that really kept us from racing for the win. But we still fought back and got into it."
   Indeed, it was a good recovery from Daytona, where Johnson crashed out the first lap
   The new electronic fuel injection systems being used for the first time this season on the Sprint Cup tour appeared to perform flawlessly at Daytona, but Sunday at Phoenix there were obvious glitches.
   Most notably Stewart's engine failed to restart while he was trying turn on and off his engine to save gas.  "I'm not sure why that happened, that's not my department, but it definitely cost us a good finish," a disappointed Stewart said. "We shut the car off to save fuel, just like we did at Daytona. But it never refired."


    Great weather in Phoenix. Could have used this a week ago in Daytona....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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