“All we do is win.”
Those were the words uttered by Denny Hamlin as he crossed the finish line at Darlington Saturday night, capping a weekend sweep at the track with his third win of the year on a night that saw a number of the usual suspects falter… or fall victim to the merciless Lady in Black.
Hamlin, who spent much of his post-race presser describing how he’s learned over the years to take care of his equipment and watch these longer races play out, said of his team’s hot streak that “now I feel like I have a better understanding of that [what it takes to win]. I think it’s going to continue to go on a roll the way it is.”
For Hamlin, scoring the win in the pseudo-Southern 500 put yet another exclamation point on a remarkable surge since knee surgery that has seen him catapult from also ran to a Chase fixture, as the No. 11 team now sits sixth in points heading to Dover. And it couldn’t have on a better night for himself or the other current title contenders, as Jimmie Johnson had one of his worst races in recent memory. Earning several Darlington stripes early and often, Johnson was involved in a vicious crash with AJ Allmendinger when the ‘Dinger’s brakes failed in turn 3 on lap 180, resulting in the first DNF for the No. 48 at a non-restrictor plate track since an engine failure in the 2008 Coca-Cola 600.
While Hamlin was a fixture in the top 10 for the entire evening, his victory did not come uncontested. Jeff Gordon, who led the most laps on the evening and had arguably the fastest car in the field, ended up shooting himself in the foot when, coming in under green for his final pit stop, he missed the entrance to pit road. Forced to make another lap around the track, the No. 24 team’s pit strategy was sunk. Gordon eventually restarted the event at the back of the pack, and though he rebounded to finish fourth, his winless streak of over a year continued despite having yet another car capable of scoring the trophy. Jeff Burton also took himself out of contention late, running over an air hose on his final pit stop and incurring a tail-end penalty. He finished eighth.
And though the combination of Clint Bowyer‘s brake issues and Burton’s late penalty was a bitter pill for RCR to swallow, Kevin Harvick salvaged the night for the organization. Coming from a deep 35th-place starting position, Harvick stormed to a sixth-place result at a track that’s been notoriously difficult for him his entire career, maintaining the Cup Series points lead in the process. Harvick tweeted after the race:
solid as a rock at one of our worst tracks!
— Kevin Harvick (@KevinHarvick) May 9, 2010
It was also a solid night for the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing camp, with polesitter Jamie McMurray finishing second after leading the most laps he has at a non-plate track since Dover in the spring of 2006. Teammate Juan Pablo Montoya finished fifth and returned himself to the Chase picture, now sitting only 54 points out of the 12th position.
Finishing 18th on what could only be described as a mediocre night for the No. 88 team, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still able to vault Bowyer to move into the top 12 in the points standings. The Chase field is far from certain, however, with less than 100 markers separating 10th-place Mark Martin from 18th-place Tony Stewart.