Hamlin gives glimpse of what's coming in Chase
Saturday night’s Southern 500 was a classic clash of man versus track.
Denny Hamlin swept the weekend’s events in NASCAR’s top two divisions for the first time in his career and became the first competitor since Mark Martin pulled off the Darlington double in 1993.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am about winning right now because I know what our team is capable of by the time we hit Chase (for the Sprint Cup) time,” Hamlin said. “We’re running pretty much last year’s cars for the most part. We’re just kind of easing our way into it.”
And the competition is making it easy for Hamlin, including defending four-time champion Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 team was far from championship form on the “Track Too Tough to Tame.” Johnson first slapped the wall on Lap 32 and his race was downhill after that. The team pitted the car twice for repairs during the first caution starting on Lap 46 and appeared back in contention before a second wreck. The final blow for Johnson was exacted by AJ Allmendinger after his brakes failed on the backstretch on Lap 180. The No. 48 faded into the night on a wrecker while Johnson dropped 110 points behind championship leader Kevin Harvick.
Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton’s battle midway through the race was reminiscent of their rivalry in the late 1990’s when it was Chevrolet versus Ford. Gordon led 110 laps and while he dominated early, Burton became stronger as the race went on. But in the end, pit problems derailed both veterans’ victory hopes in the closing laps.
Kyle Busch also challenged his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, but conceded defeat on the radio early on. “Denny is so awesome through (Turn) 4.” The new Kyle Busch? Unlikely. Perhaps wiser admitting, “I couldn’t hang with (Hamlin), so to try to beat him, we made a change. We just went too far.”
After Busch wavered, polesitter Jamie McMurray was the last driver to have Hamlin in his sights. However, over the final 13 laps, Hamlin extended his lead over McMurray to 1.908 seconds at the line. Third-place finisher Kurt Busch nearly wrecked his car in a last ditch attempt to catch McMurray on the final turn.
Hamlin led 75 of the final 78 laps and moved into sixth-place, 164 markers behind Harvick, in the standings with his third win of the season.
Even in victory, Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford insists the No. 11 team’s best equipment is yet to come — stealing a page out of the No. 48 team’s playbook.
“We’re working on the back half of the season right now,” Ford said. “Honestly, I’m surprised how strong we are right now. Not to spill the beans, but we’re working on Chase stuff right now. We’re racing things that we were racing at the end of last year so we can concentrate on the later months of this year.”
Despite battling back from knee surgery just six weeks ago, Hamlin is convinced the setback taught him patience and perseverance particularly when he jumped back in the car less than two weeks later at Phoenix.
“It showed character and it shows I’m a team player,” Hamlin added. “I felt like it was important for me to step up and do the same for them. It's paid off. People don't believe it, but it's paid off. We have those good pit stops at the end. Is it coincidence? Maybe. But I can tell you our team is hitting its stride. Everyone is getting along as good as they ever have.”
With two finishes of 30th or worse in the last three races, Johnson is showing a bit of vulnerability that Hamlin and the rest of the field hope to capitalize on in the next 15 races prior to the Chase. Certainly, Hamlin will need competitive equipment to take down Johnson in the post season. But Hamlin has learned that it takes more than cars and a driver to win championships — it takes a team.
“We've got a lot of racing left to do before the Chase starts,” Hamlin said. “Those guys, when they get a comfortable place in the Chase or in the points standings, you typically see that in the past history. They don't slack up, but their performance is not as good because maybe they're trying things or something like that.
“During the course of my career I felt like I missed out on a lot of wins the first probably two to three years of my career. Probably 10 of them I should not have lost had I had the mindset that I have right now, what it takes to win. What I need to do to win the race at the end. So this is the kind of winning pace that I felt like we should have been on right from the get go of my career, now we're just hitting that stride.”