“When you win, nothing hurts.” – Joe Namath
A good athlete becomes great once they thrive on overcoming the odds to achieve their goals. For them, injuries are not a white flag of surrender but rather an obstacle they step over en route to victory.
On Monday, we saw one of these gold-medal performances play out, pain pushing the limits of a man in his transition from good to great. Just 19 days after surgery to repair a torn ACL, there was Denny Hamlin standing in Texas’s victory lane, beating rival Jimmie Johnson and stamping an “I’m back!” label on what had been a lost 2010 season.
“It was just one of those days where the pieces of the puzzle came together,” he said afterwards. “And I felt like it was a winning effort overall.”
Hamlin’s stunning win in the Samsung Mobile 500 came courtesy of a late-race pit strategy call by crew chief Mike Ford. When a caution came out for David Reutimann’s blown engine on lap 312, Ford chose to give Hamlin two tires for track position to line him up third behind Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart. Once the green flag fell, Stewart dropped back, eventually helping launch a nine-car wreck that demolished several contenders. Burton and Hamlin were left to slug it out amongst themselves; on the race’s final restart on lap 322, Hamlin pushed by Burton and then held on over a hard-charging Johnson to score his first ever victory at Texas.
“I think the No. 48 got bottled up the first couple of laps, which was good,” said Hamlin of a frantic finish in which JJ was armed with four fresh Goodyears. “But he did close in at the end. A lot of that was because I really backed off the tempo about five to go just to make sure I hit my marks and didn’t make mistakes and stuff like that.”
Johnson’s charge came up a car length short, but the driver will be remembered more this week for mid-race contact with Jeff Gordon. The duo combined with Dale Earnhardt Jr. to control most of the race, leading 209 of 334 laps. But on a restart with 95 to go, Gordon and Johnson touched, ripping up his left front tire while leaving donut holes in the side of each car.
“I am pretty disappointed in how he was racing me today,” Johnson said after needing to recover from an unscheduled green-flag stop. “But we will get to the bottom of it and sort it out. No need to play it out in the press and we’ll get it taken care of at the shop and during the week and come back to the next race and do it again.”
As for Gordon, his race-high 124 laps led went for naught after contact with Stewart and Carl Edwards caused a savage nine-car wreck towards the finish. With less than 20 laps remaining, the trio joined Juan Pablo Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and several others in the garage after a battle down the frontstretch turned ugly.
“I saw Tony backing up and then he got loose,” he said. “I was trying not to get in to him. I ended up getting underneath him and we were three-wide. Then I saw the No. 48 out on my left corner sneak in there as well. Just saw a lot of guys racing hard and we ran out of room.”
Behind the top-two finishers, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top-five finishers. The man Kahne will eventually replace at Hendrick Motorsports, Mark Martin, recovered from a lap down to take sixth, with Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle rounding out the top 10. The race had just seven caution flags, run relatively clean despite serving as NASCAR’s intermediate track debut for the new spoiler.
“The spoiler is better,” Earnhardt Jr. said afterwards, summing up an uneventful day where it had little to no effect on the actual racing. “We just need to get a little more downforce on these cars. It would be pretty awesome if we could get a little more nose downforce and stuff like that. It’ll happen. It will just take a while.”