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5 Points to Ponder: Earnhardt’s Error, Biffle Steady, Hamlin Heroics…

Turns out race six of the 2010 season was worth the wait after all, with Denny Hamlin recording an absolutely improbable victory. Pitting from the lead, with less than 10 laps to go, Hamlin bullied and harried his way from ninth all the way to the front in a manner reminiscent of his win at Pocono last year, when another late race surge also saw him take the checkers.

But it wasn’t all fun and games for a man with major surgery less than 48 hours away. As Hamlin exited his car in victory lane, he noticeably winced and, when asked, admitted his leg “hurts.” And that’s precisely where we’ll start this week’s Martinsville edition of Five Points to Ponder, ahead of this second off-week of the season:

Huge Win for Hamlin ahead of ACL surgery

Whether you are a fan of Hamlin or indeed a hater, it’s hard not to feel at least some sympathy for the Joe Gibbs racer as he heads into ACL replacement surgery on Wednesday. Having been through the exact same procedure on my left knee, I can honestly say Hamlin’s really going to hate, hate, hate the first week. My knee swelled to over double its regular size, which is normal given this type of procedure; it took three weeks before I could walk unaided, and several months before I began to feel vaguely normal again.

With that in mind, I can see Hamlin managing to physically get in the car at Phoenix, but I don’t see how he’ll be able to drive more than a lap. Even if he does, and is able to pull into the pits with no issue, it will take some time to extricate him from the car and install relief driver Casey Mears. And while Hamlin talked a good game Monday, don’t expect him to go the distance for several weeks. Given the time it takes to recover from ACL surgery (NFL players, for example, come back no earlier than 5-6 months), I can testify firsthand it’s a process that you can aid immensely with rehab but you can’t necessarily rush, and I find it hard to believe Hamlin will have any sort of level of comfort in the car much before the Coke 600 on Memorial Day weekend (at the earliest.)

But regardless of the massive impediment it will place on his 2010 campaign, this operation’s the right move, long-term, for the health and future prospects of the six-year Cup driver. The good news for Hamlin, after a rough start, is that Monday’s win, his third in 10 attempts at Martinsville, will serve as a crucial reminder all is not lost in 2010 just yet – despite the relative severity of the surgery he’ll undergo this Wednesday.

I, for one, wish him well on his road to recovery.

The Winless and Wingless No. 24 car

It’s now been 35 races since the driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevy, Jeff Gordon, recorded the 82nd victory of his illustrious career. And for the second time this season, at Martinsville on Monday afternoon, Gordon essentially lost a race that was his to win. At Vegas, it was a bad call by crew chief Steve Letarte; but on Monday, the driver has no one to blame but himself. Botching the final restart on a green-white-checkered finish, Gordon in hindsight seemed unnerved by the unlucky caution thrown just inches before the white-flag lap for Kyle Busch‘s wreck. A slow start allowed Kenseth to not only bump but get underneath him, and the pushing and shoving between the two gave Hamlin the opening he needed to pounce.

The original four-time champion won six races in 2007, but in 2008 he went winless for the first time since his rookie year of 1993. One early win at Texas in 2009 was all he could muster last year, so it’s clear the victories are at a premium nowadays – in a way they’ve not been his entire Cup career. As Gordon well knows, you only get precious few chances to win a Sprint Cup race each season – even with a 36-race schedule – so when you’re in the position for one, you have to capitalize. Simply put: Gordon should have won at Vegas, and he should have won Monday’s race.

Six for six for the Biff

Matt Kenseth’s late-race mixup with Gordon shunted him out of a top-three (or better) finish all the way back to 18th. That negated what was a surprisingly strong day for the No. 17 team, costing him the point lead while halting a streak of five straight top-10 finishes for the 2003 Cup champ. Fellow Roush Fenway racer Greg Biffle, however, kept his streak alive and is now the only Cup driver to have finished in the top 10 in all six races this season. Considering the stats (just his second top 10 in 15 Martinsville starts) you have to be impressed by the No. 16’s resiliency: contact with Marcos Ambrose, then a pit road penalty left him charging from behind most of the afternoon.

“I tell you what, it was kind of a spectacular day for us,” he said. “We were up and down, up and down. I don’t know how I got caught speeding in pit road. I didn’t think there was enough distance to get going that fast. That really hurt us because we spent the whole rest of the day getting our track position back. I feel like we had a top-10 car probably at best today, but that is a great run for us here, unbelievable.”

What this means for Biffle’s championship chances, we’ll have to wait and see, but for now it’s a fantastic start for a team looking to make a third straight, and career fourth, Chase berth. The key may be simply to get back to victory lane. After winning at Loudon and Dover to open the 2008 Chase in style, The Biff’s winless streak has reached 50 races, and it doesn’t take a racing genius to know that it’s a stat the laid back 40-year-old is keen to correct sooner rather than later. But at the very least, for now Biffle’s lightning fast start should give him confidence he can, at the very least, challenge for top honors in 2010.

Sugar Free Little E

This past week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was estimated by Forbes magazine to be the top-earning driver in the sport, raking in some $30 million a year through his many and varied endeavors (some of which do include driving an actual racecar). This news will hardly come as a surprise, but it does once again drive home the notion that there is still so much for Earnhardt Jr. to achieve to escape the shadow of his seven-time champion father and live up the lofty expectations that surround his every turn of the wheel.

After a horrible season in 2009, Junior needed a good start to the 2010 and he’s just about had that, sitting 10th in the standings just 11 points above the cutoff mark. With that said, Martinsville’s 15th-place finish should perhaps have been a top 10 run; but once again, it was the No. 88 team who shot itself in the foot. After buddy Kenseth appeared to be blocking the car in on pit stops, crew chief Lance McGrew ordered Earnhardt to pit at a different angle – ultimately leading to a slow stop that cost him spots on the track he couldn’t make up. Especially in the sporty new sugar-free AMP silver lemonade paint scheme (yeah, yeah I sound like DW) he should have taken advantage with a solid run on one of his best tracks. It could have been much worse… but considering the expectations, it could have been so much better.

And speaking of the grand old sage himself, DW opined last week that Earnhardt should run some Truck races and pick up some wins. I’m not sure I’d necessarily agree but one thing is for sure, if Junior could win one sooner than later, it would be a huge shot of much-needed momentum for the entire No. 88 program. With Phoenix, Texas and Talladega ahead, those are three solid tracks for Earnhardt – ones where he should be put in position to succeed.

Logano’s learning curve

Joey Logano’s second-place finish was just the fifth time in 45 Sprint Cup starts he’s recorded a top-five finish (his first ever on a short track). Notably, it was his second such effort in just six 2010 races. For a kid who only turns 20 next month, and who has had to live under a tremendous amount of scrutiny and speculation for a number of years now, Logano’s made an impressive start to his budding Sprint Cup career, belying his young age and relative lack of experience on the tracks at the sport’s highest echelon. Veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli and an experienced pit crew have eased the transition and smoothed the learning curve, certainly, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Logano is improving (often a lot) each time he revisits a track. With the way he’s started, the No. 20 car is in a position to make a sustained bid for a Chase berth in what figures to be a crowded field of challengers in 2010. Can he do it? Well, I said he could in my preseason predictions; then again, I tipped Carl Edwards to win it all in 2009 so it’s not like I’m a great prognosticator. But Logano’s strong start is, you can’t help but feel, a sure sign of what’s to come – and more – for the lanky, positive kid with the goofy smile.

Enjoy your off week, folks. Hopefully that Martinsville finish will tide you over until the first night race of the season at Phoenix a week from Saturday.

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