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Ingram: Of Monkeyshines and Men In Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 8 2010

Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth fought for the lead late in Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Racing in NASCAR’s premier series has got its groove back. It’s wild. It’s wacky and only slightly tacky.

The big stage of the Texas Motor Speedway – heightened by the small monkey selling programs out front – and the bigger stage of a Sprint Cup championship got them boys fighting one another as well as literally flipping off officials and figuratively flipping off teammates.

The party’s just getting started. It’s the tail end of the one Denny Hamlin started last year by throwing a big bash in Las Vegas after the Sprint Cup awards banquet that featured a hand-picked guest list so the driver could work the room and let all the guests know one-on-one that he was going to win the 2010 Sprint Cup.

In Texas, Hamlin served up a big reminder of his ambitions by out-smoothing the ever-smooth Jimmie Johnson, who was on the guest list back in Vegas. The crew chief for Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team, Mike Ford, got in the act by racheting up the pressure on pit road with his choice of a pit stall next door to Johnson and his Chad Knaus-led Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team.

The only thing missing in this showdown was High Noon. In the end, the Hendrick team got its air guns stuck in their collective holsters. By time Knaus had flipped his lid and installed Jeff Gordon’s pit crew, the damage had been done. Hamlin made a classic crossover move to beat a less-than-smooth Matt Kenseth to the checkered flag, effectively doubling his lead over Johnson to 33 points heading into Phoenix.

Is it lights out and party over for Johnson? For the first time since his streak of four straight

Denny Hamlin in victory lane at Texas. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

championships, Johnson cannot control his own destiny. Even if he leads the most laps and wins at Phoenix, Hamlin can retain the lead heading into the season finale in Homestead, a stomping ground for both him and the Joe Gibbs Racing team. As time goes on, that crossover move that beat wall-bound Kenseth and also held third-placed Mark Martin at bay will loom large.

But they haven’t opened the gates at Phoenix yet and for the next four days the Hendrick team will have to deal with the question of whether it was fair for Knaus to fire his pit crew the moment Gordon’s guys became available. According to the only person who has won eight Sprint Cup championships — former crew chief Dale Inman — keeping everybody pulling in the same direction is the path to victory. That’s not quite the program at the No. 48 team in the aftermath of Texas. One can almost see the little monkeys riding the shoulders of the pit crew.

Years from now, we may be looking back at Texas as the turning point for Hamlin’s first championship – including the spring race when he won shortly after ACL surgery. But will we also look back at the race as a turning point for the Chase for the Sprint Cup format itself? Will the Texas race fall in the same category as the first live telecast of the Daytona 500 that ended in a wrecking party and fist fight in Turn 3? Or will it be the race best remembered for its collective monkeyshines?

Probably a little bit of both.

It remains a matter of curiosity what Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton – the “Gentlemen Jeffs” as so aptly described by RacinToday’s John Sturbin – had to say to each other during the ambulance ride back to the medical center following their wreck under caution and shoving match. (I scored it 3-2 in favor of Gordon for getting in a head grab before Burton managed an escape.)

Two things they likely did not discuss: sharing a cab to the Sprint Cup awards banquet in Vegas or the possibility that Gordon would lose his car, his temper and his pit crew.

The menagerie at Texas also included a couple of wild flying birds in the cockpit of Kyle Busch, who has the tendency to blame all around him for any unkind fate. Years from now, we may be considering the unkindest cut of all for Busch – no Sprint Cup title for a talented competitor who drove for championship teams but never seemed to understand what it takes to be a champion.

Hamlin, on the other hand, has transcended that category and learned to channel his determination, confidence and skill into the over-all operation of Joe Gibbs Racing.

Alas, poor Harvick (to borrow a phrase). After climbing to second and contending for a similar status of Johnson-beater as Hamlin, the Richard Childress Racing driver’s Chevy went into yaw. The driver applies constant pressure to his team’s decisions from the cockpit as if to motivate himself with anger as well. It’s a formula that hasn’t quite panned out for the dark horse nicknamed Happy.

So what’s the secret? It seems Hamlin is enjoying the process of the Chase, which can’t be said for the other contenders. Even when things have gone poorly during the Chase, Hamlin has managed to find a little sunshine. His team has maintained an even keel – even when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and lost at lap at Talladega.

It’s all a reminder of one of NASCAR’s most upbeat and talented champions, the late Tim Flock. A driver who could talk as fast as he drove and rattled off many a great and often fictitious story, Flock is regularly remembered for having raced with a Rhesus monkey named Jocko Flocko on his shoulder to help promote newspaper stories, fan interest and ticket sales. Jocko met an early end – probably due to stress. Several years later, defending champion Flock himself quit the team of Carl Kiekhaefer in the middle of the 1956 season due to stress and ulcers.

Which just goes to show that despite all the fun, humor and high jinks, championship chases in NASCAR have rarely been a place for the feint of heart.

Quote of the Week: “Jimmie Johnson is probably one of the best drivers in NASCAR history. I wanted to be the guy to take him off the top.”  – Denny Hamlin after his victory at Texas that extended his lead to 33 points in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 8 2010
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terry says:

    Stress is lifting the floor pan flap to check tire wear during the race…..Jock-o fell through….
    NOW THAT’S debris on the track!!!!
    Old school was a dash cigarette lighter for Pearson so he could smoke one while he passed you on the high side…..
    Please don’t compare this kid and today with Tim or David.