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Wow! Now that's some NASCAR racin' -- Denny Hamlin beats Juan Pablo Montoya in the wildest race of the season

Denny Hamlin breaks a long dry spell with a dramatic win at Pocono, over Juan Pablo Montoya (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   POCONO, Pa.
   It was easily one of the best NASCAR races of the season, and somewhat unexpectedly, on a beautiful Monday afternoon at Pocono Raceway, with Denny Hamlin dominating, then having to fight back to outrun Juan Pablo Montoya to win the wildest ever Pennsylvania 500.
   The some 80,000 fans on hand certainly got their money's worth in this one. The first couple of hours may have been boring, as strong as Hamlin was, but once rivals started throwing different pit stop strategies at the game, things heated up.
   Really, really heated up.
   Drivers credited NASCAR's new double-file restart rule, which jammed up traffic and made for an afternoon of "havoc," third-place finisher Clint Bowyer said with a laugh.
   Typically races at this big, wide, long track go long stretches of green, without cautions, making gas mileage key.
   Not this time.
   This was flatout, brutal racing. And emotions were running high throughout the pack. NASCAR even put two drivers in the penalty box for rough driving, Robby Gordon and David Stremme.
   Crew chief Mike Ford's Toyota was the class of the field, and Hamlin made the most of it. But differing pit strategies, with as many as 36 men on the lead lap most of the day, made Hamlin work for it down the stretch.
   Bowyer led on the final restart with 13 laps to go, with Bowyer, surprising Sam Hornish Jr., Kasey Kahne, Montoya, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin right behind him, in side-by-side pairs.
    Kahne and Montoya got into at the green, Montoya nearly crashed, Hamlin took advantage to jump to second.
   Montoya made a remarkably quick recovery and charged back to Hamlin's tail in a 1-2-3 breakaway.
   Hamlin and Montoya jumped past Bowyer the next lap, and it was a two-man race from there. Montoya hung tight with Hamlin until five laps to go, when Hamlin sprinted away.
    "We've come close in a lot of races this year, and come up short, but we definitely had an engine today," an emotional Hamlin said in victory lane, then completely breaking down when referring to his grandmother, who just died.


Pit road was very important at Pocono -- not speed, but strategy and tactics. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


It was also a great race, a brilliant comeback, for Montoya, who backed up his Indianapolis performance with one of the best comebacks of his short NASCAR career – in perhaps the toughest race ever run at this track, thus proving he's a legitimate championship contender, with both car and NASCAR talent now.
    Kahne also had a good run during the warm afternoon. But he, like most in the field, had some bruising run-ins. The in-fighting was so tight and tough that frequently it was hard to tell who was doing what to whom. And it looks like Montoya and Kahne got into it a couple of times. After the race Kahne had some words for Montoya, who let them roll off his back.
   Montoya said Kahne was actually congratulating him for being able to save it, in their run-in on the final restart.
   "The first guy that hit me was Sam, and I just turned right up the hill, so the car wouldn't spin," Montoya said. "Then I saw Kasey coming right at me, so I turned toward the wall so he wouldn't hit me…and it just turned out really good for us."
    Kahne said he just made a mistake, that he was trying not to get jumped on the restart, after having restart trouble much of the day:  "I get pushed on the restarts…I overshot the corner and ran into him -- and Juan Pablo is one of the best drivers in the world or else he would have wrecked there," Kahne said.
   Why such wild racing the final 40 laps (100 miles)?
   "Restarts make it interesting," Montoya said dryly. "It just all depended on where Denny was."
   Bowyer agreed. As long as Hamlin was out front and dominant, the action was cool and quiet. But once Hamlin got stuck back in the pack with about 100 miles to go, his rivals began battling vigorously.
    Even teammates didn't play nice. Bobby Labonte and teammate David Ragan may have to talk sometime this week too, after Ragan ran into the back of Labonte late in the four hour race and put him hard into the outside wall.
     Montoya said part of the hard action was the pressure to make the playoffs. There are now only five races left to get a spot in the top 12 and make the cut for the 10-race championship run that begins in September.
   "It's all about making the chase. If I can make the chase, people will forget all this other stuff," Montoya said.
   "It's very important to make the chase. Then we can have some fun."
   And maybe it's time to remember one reason Montoya made the jump from Formula One to NASCAR – because some of his F1 rivals complained about Montoya driving too hard.
   Over here, Montoya the past several weeks has – in Jimmie Johnson's own words – shown he's finally become a real NASCAR racer.
   A pit road mistake cost Montoya last week. And he wasn't perfect on pit road Monday either.
   "I overshot the pits once," Montoya said. "It was the first time in.
    "And then we had a loose wheel, so we had to take four tires when everyone else took only two. But that helped us in the long run."
    That actually set up a key call by Montoya's crew chief Brian Pattie on their final pit stop – a lap ahead of the rest coming in – and gave Montoya good track position for the stretch run, and he used it well.


    Crew chief Brian Pattie (L) and Juan Pablo Montoya, showing again they plan to be championship contenders this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





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