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Big Picture Could Be A Masterpiece

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 21 2010

Denny Hamlin got the boot at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – Recuperating from knee surgery, Denny Hamlin says he won NASCAR’s Samsung Mobile 500 Monday afternoon operating at maybe 60 percent. By design, the same figure also may apply to the current state of his Sprint Cup team at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I told everyone on Media Day (in February)…if we don’t set the world on fire for the first six months, it’s OK. Things are OK,” said Hamlin, winner of two of his last three series starts. “We’re going to ease into our season and try to learn and work on some stuff for later in the year.”

Long before Hamlin tore up his left knee playing pickup basketball on Jan. 22, he and crew chief Mike Ford were preaching big-picture – specifically Race No. 26 and the impending start of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Hamlin qualified for the Chase for the fourth consecutive year in 2009, when his budding rivalry with Brad Keselowski became a popular storyline.

Returning to the Chase spotlight is why Hamlin underwent surgery to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee on March 31, instead of delaying it until after the long season.

“I did this for September,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 FedEx Ground Toyota Camry. “I knew that if I did it now, come Chase time, if I’m lucky enough to be in one of those top-12 positions, it was going to make me more prepared to make a run for the championship at that time. I didn’t feel like we were that good where we could just give up a month and still make the Chase. I knew we still had to perform well, but I did it for the long run.

“Obviously, a win makes you feel a little bit better, gives you a little bit of confidence from here on out. We’re still a good month away from getting back where I was.”

Given Hamlin’s recent results, that’s a scary proposition. Hamlin won Monday’s rain-delayed and red-flagged event at Texas Motor Speedway by holding off reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin took the lead from Jeff Burton on a restart following a 20-minute red flag period and paced the final 12 laps to score his first win on the 1.5-mile TMS quadoval.

Hamlin also won the rain-delayed Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 on March 29, another Monday matinee following a rainout at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway.

In between, Hamlin went under the knife, celebrated an off-weekend for Easter and returned to the cockpit at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway for the Subway Fresh Fit 600. Despite falling two laps off the pace because of electrical issues, and in pain “more than I can tell you” because of the knee, Hamlin toughed-it-out by going the distance in a 378-lap race that lasted 3 hours and 48 minutes.

“I knew Phoenix was going to be a struggle,” said Hamlin, who had the option to turn his car over to relief driver Casey Mears. “Where we finished was not indicative. We didn’t have a 30th-place car. (But) the choice to not get out of the car…that would be the easy thing to do. That would be the thing, ‘Hey, our day’s shot to hell. Easiest thing to do is just get out and let him (Mears) take over.’

“But maybe the pit crew doesn’t give me the best stop. I don’t get out of the car and just say, ‘Hell with it. Someone else drive it.’ That’s not the way to be. I did it for team morale, and obviously it paid off this weekend. We had a strong day on pit road (Monday). Who knows? If I would have got out, who knows if those guys would have done or had the mentality or been behind me as much as they were this week. I doubt it. I wouldn’t have been. I would have felt like the driver gave up on me.

“I think they would have understood either way. But I think it just showed a little bit of courage for those guys. I knew they would give their left leg for me, and I was willing to do the same thing for them.”

Team owner Gibbs certainly dealt with debilitating injuries on a weekly basis during his two tours as Hall of Fame head coach of the NFL’s Washington Redskins. And Gibbs stopped just short of terming Hamlin’s performance at PIR as heroic.

“I think a lot of guys would have chosen to get out of the car,” Gibbs said, “and I sent a message to him that said, ‘Hey, that showed a lot of courage.’ Stays in the car, bad day, fought his way through that. We’ve had days like that where it goes against us. This time, it went for us.”

Hamlin began the weekend 18th in points, an imposing 290 behind Johnson, the four-time/reigning champion who has won three of the season’s first eight races. Exiting Texas, Hamlin now is 11th overall – still 275 points behind Johnson – but inside the coveted top-12. And he’s only 21 points behind Mark Martin in 10th.

Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon paced a race-high 124 of 334 laps on Monday, and combined with Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to lead 209 of the 334 laps. In that respect, Monday’s race – the first contested on a superspeedway with NASCAR’s newly introduced rear spoiler blade and deck fin combination – did not drastically alter the series’ current balance of power.

“We’re bench-marking the Hendrick guys (including Martin),” Ford said, “and we want to beat them at the end of the season. They may beat us the majority of the weeks up-front – not content with it – but we’re willing to give up a little bit here and there to gain down the road.”

For the record, all three JGR drivers currently are in the top-12. Kyle Busch, who finished third at TMS, is a solid sixth with Hamlin 11th and Joey Logano in 12th.

“I think our strength is what we have in our crew chiefs and our drivers,” Gibbs said.

Still, Hamlin acknowledged it’s difficult not to have Hendrick-on-the-brain. “Well, it’s tough in some instances because they have the power of the numbers,” said Hamlin, a 29-year-old native of Chesterfield, Va. “They do have a lot. But I feel like Joe touched on, there is also a lot of people focused on myself, the No. 20 (Logano) and the (18) Busch as well. Maybe there is an edge to be gained there instead of a big bulk of numbers of guys getting their resources spread out.

“For myself, we were running through the course of the race (and) it was just all the Hendrick guys and me. It is frustrating. But what’s encouraging for me right now is I know what’s coming in the future. I know what we’re doing right now, and we’re still competitive. There are going to be roller coasters, races where we’re high and we’re low and things like that simply because of what we’re doing right now. But I know what’s coming, and that’s what I’m really excited about.”

Hamlin – who won four races, qualified for the Chase fourth and finished fifth in points last year – was a trendy preseason championship pick in these days of Anybody-But-Jimmie. “You do have big expectations at the start of the season,” said Hamlin, who notched his 10th career Cup victory at TMS by 0.152-seconds. “Obviously, with no test sessions we’ve got stuff to test during race weekend.

“So, we’re experimenting with different stuff. Some stuff is working, some stuff isn’t. But we’ve never hit the panic button, that’s for sure. We’ve never been down on ourselves because we haven’t gotten to the expectations of a lot of people put on us at the beginning of the year and I put on myself. My expectations and where I thought I could be at the end of this year can still happen. But it’s months and months down the road.

“I told everyone, you’ve got to stop looking at the short-term, you know? We still look at 15, 20 races in, and then get a judgment on where we’re going to be.”

Hamlin’s outlook also is buoyed by the fact that with each passing day, his rehabilitation regimen figures to get a bit easier. His next hurdle, however, is the season’s second restrictor plate race – Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at the 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway.

“Hopefully I can really take a week off with it in Talladega, as long as I don’t go on my head and upside down and through the fence,” Hamlin deadpanned.

“I’m just starting to get back into the gym…trying to do some cardio as much as I can, upper body,” said Hamlin, who is working with a personal trainer at Ortho Carolina, near the JGR headquarters in Huntersville, N.C.  “I’ve just gotten to where I can make one revolution on a bicycle, because my range-of-motion is so bad right now. I’m just doing that _extensive, extensive leg workouts. I have a machine, which is the icing and compression that I stay on pretty much for the rest of the 18 hours a day I’m not doing rehab or in the gym.

“It’s very frustrating, and it’s easy to get down. I mean, it’s borderline depressing to not be able to do anything. I can’t enjoy. I have to just sit on my tail when I’m not rehabbing every single day. When it’s nice weather outside and everyone’s outside doing stuff, it’s frustrating. (But) I put myself in the situation and I’ve got to deal with the consequences. You know, when hopefully this thing gets better, it’s just going to make me stronger.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, April 21 2010
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  • Richard in N.C. says:

    How smart will Hamlin’s Phoenix decision have been if he misses the Chase or the championship by the 3 or 6 points Mears could probably have picked up?