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Brace yourself: this race to the chase, to the Richmond playoff cut, looks like it's really heating up

   Denny Hamlin, winner of Monday's Pocono 500, on a day when the tigers came out to play (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

    POCONO, Pa.
    Denny Hamlin has played in the shadows too long this season, and Monday he stepped it up a notch or two…on an wild and woolly afternoon at Pocono Raceway when everybody stepped it up a notch or two – and sometimes right over the top and over the line.
   If this is the way this game is going to be played in the next few weeks, among the drivers battling to get a spot in the title chase, well, better brace yourself.
   NASCAR racing simply doesn't get any better than this.
   Monday's rain-delayed Pennsylvania 500 was a non-stop highlights film, once Hamlin showed himself vulnerable to rivals' strategies.
   He dominated the race, led 91 of the 200 laps, no one else was even close.
   But track position was critical – not just because clean air was, as usual, important, but because these guys on these double-file restarts were going flat crazy.
   Jeff Gordon called it "insane."
   And that may be putting it mildly.
   "I'm kind of glad we built a little (points) cushion today, because Watkins Glen will be tough," Hamlin said. "Going down into turn one there is going to be crazy.
   "I think it's just going to be survival.
   "That's a race where the conservative approach is probably going to take you further than anywhere, because guys are going to dive-bomb getting into turn one.
   "You'll need to be in the first row…or back about 20th or 30th.
   "Obviously there will be a lot of wrecks.
   "Hopefully it doesn't go down to that; hopefully we'll get some green flag runs and the best car wins."
   Still Hamlin said he was glad fans here got to see a slam-bang afternoon like this. "As crazy as it was today, I think that's just what the race track needed," Hamlin said. "We always hear about the races here (being somewhat boring). But they had a great race today.
   "And it's obviously because of what the fans wanted – double-file restarts.
   "For a track as big as this is, that's about as good a show as you can get."
  Heck, that's about as good a show at any Sprint Cup stop this season.
   And Bristol? Maybe things will be hot there too, again?
   "Bristol will be the same," Hamlin says.
   "I think it's going to depend on how many guys you have on that border of making the chase or not making the chase, as to how crazy that race is going to be."
   On a wild day like this, it didn't look like anyone was holding back.
   This was expected to be a rather mild-mannered afternoon.
   It certainly wasn't.
   When Hamlin got stuck deep in the pack late, with about 100 miles to go, during a run of rival pit stop strategies, he got down on things briefly, then realized he had to suck it up and step it up and get wild and crazy with the rest of them.
   "It's hard to win when you have fuel mileage questions and you have guys out of sequence (on pit stops and fuel and tires)," Hamlin said. "And when you (Hamlin) line up 14th with about 30 laps to go, and you're three-tenths (of a second a lap) slower….we had a tall, tall hill to climb.
   "But I said in my mind that I wasn't going to settle for anything less than a win. Every corner I went in, that was 120 percent."
   Oh, yes….
   And then some.
   And Hamlin wasn't alone in overdriving.
   Which made for one of the best shows this season.
   "It was a very, very difficult race to call," crew chief Mike Ford said. "Because (fresh) tires are important (as much as two seconds a lap quicker than old tires). And (clean) air is important.  But you don't know what the outcome is going to be – which will prevail – until you actually do it."
    "I'll be honest with you – every single lap it comes out…the frustration, when I got behind," Hamlin said. "Because I've led many races, I've dominated many races, and not won."
   This was his first win since Martinsville in early 2008.
   "I felt like I was going to let it slip away again with about 50 to go," Hamlin said. "But Mike did a great job of motivating me: 'Man, just give me everything you can for these next seven laps….'
   "But it was tough for me. I started getting my feelings back up once we held our ground a little. But it affects you all the time.
  "And it goes down when you see you've got 13 cars in front of you with 30 laps to go, on a track where it's very, very hard to pass.
   "Every couple of laps I'd pick off a couple more. Then you've got the leader and two cars in front of you – and I almost wrecked in turn three….
    "Many, many times I nearly wrecked. Once going into turn three, trying to get beside (then leader) Clint Bowyer with 10 laps to go.
    "And I spun  David Reutimann making my way back up to the front, and hurt those guys' chase chances.
  "But only half of me was driving the car most of the time.
   "It was just emotion, trying to get everything out. I felt I had to get everything I could right away.
   "You can be aggressive like that at times. It paid off today. But tomorrow, next week, we might end up on the hook with 20 to go."
    So maybe rivals are starting to catch up to the juggernaut Hendrick teams.
   "In the big, grand scheme of things we've been the most solid car that hasn't had a Hendrick label on it," Hamlin said. "I take a lot of pride in that. We're taking strides forward, starting today."
   Hamlin and Juan Pablo Montoya too.
   Could be a hot as blazes battle from here to the Richmond playoff cut.
   Consider just the Hamlin-Reutiman thing Monday, while they were racing for position nearly the front late.
   "I got to him coming off turn one, and drove into two and nudged him in the middle of the corner," Hamlin said. "I let go of him, and then he slammed on the brakes to let me know he was upset. I'd plowed him off two really hard.
   "So I said 'Man, all right, I understand, I get it.'
   "In turn three I got to him again, and he got really loose. I was hoping he was going to come off the corner and straighten up….and I was going to push him down the frontstraight.
   "Instead, I spun him into his teammate.
   "It was a lot of emotion: I've got guys in my mirror that I know I've got to race for the win, and I'm racing for a win on a weekend where it means more than any other weekend (because of the death of his grandmother).
   "But I've got to make it up to those guys somehow. Cut them some breaks on the track or something."


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