“All we do is win, baby!”
Such were the words Denny Hamlin uttered over the radio of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota as he was coming to take the checkered flag at the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday.
Sounding increasingly more like fact rather than t-shirt hyperbole fodder, Hamlin led 123 laps of the 200 scheduled around the 2.0-mile D-shaped oval, including all but four of the final 86 laps. It was Hamlin’s fifth win of the season, which has catapulted him to third in the Sprint Cup Series points standings, 47 behind leader Kevin Harvick. Teammate Kyle Busch is second in points, 22 markers behind Harvick.
When questioned if he ever remembered spanking the field such as he did today, Hamlin was quick to retort, “In late models I did… but the competition level is a little different. I’ve had days at Pocono like this – but we never stopped working, regardless if we have a nine-tenths of a second lead or a nine second lead.”
Hamlin’s series-leading fifth win in 2010 was his second in a row, and third in the last five races. The win highlights not only the momentum that the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been building in recent weeks, but the versatility of the driver who has been quite vocal as of late about taking a leadership role within the organization. With his win at Michigan, Hamlin has now won on a short track (Martinsville), a 1.5-mile banked superspeedway (Texas), an egg-shaped 1.366-mile minnow-pond inspired super speedway (Darlington), a 2.5-mile triangular terror (Pocono) and now the 2.0-mile 4-lane wide oval in the backyard of the Big Three.
Keep in mind the words that Hamlin spoke upon exiting the car in victory lane last weekend at Pocono – the best is yet to come, with new cars and evolved technology that haven’t even hit the track yet. Could this be cause for concern for the rest of the field that is seemingly wallowing in the wake of his JGR Camry’s spoiler?
“I think there’s some aspects of our race team that can get better,” Hamlin said. “I think our pit crew has definitely stepped up. I feel like my communication with [crew chief Mike Ford] has stepped up. What I’m telling Mike and then applying to the race car has gotten better.”
What has gotten better for the No. 11 team – and possibly worse for the rest of the field – is the Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus-esque performance and cohesion that has been on display in recent weeks. Early in the going, the No. 11 car had run so low on fuel, that it had starved itself on a pit stop, leading Hamlin to believe that a fuel cable had broken as it did a year ago.
“We had a similar issue at Pocono race last year where we broke a fuel cable – and I thought that’s what we did. When I went to take off, it immediately shut off. So I thought we spun a cable like we did last year. That was [a] downer for sure, but once it picked back up I was pretty confident it wouldn’t do that again.”
While it may have looked like business as usual and just another Sunday drive, Hamlin was quick to dispel those rumors in the post-race press conference, as was crew chief Mike Ford.
“We weren’t a top-15 team and we made some big adjustments going into Saturday, but today we were fine tuning it. We really didn’t think we had a shot to win, but the adjustments between yesterday and today were spot on, and we just had to fine-tune it. The pit crew stepped up and paced themselves when they needed to, and Denny did a good job taking care of his equipment and try to leave a little bit for the end. It was a group effort all the way around this week.”
Hamlin confirmed his crew chief’s assessment of the weekend that didn’t get off to a particularly strong start on Friday morning.
“Even though it looks strong, it’s not as easy as it looked [Sunday]. Friday and Saturday were somewhat of a struggle for us. We got lucky qualifying seventh simply because we went out early. We probably would have qualified 15th to 20th if we went out any later. So we just capitalized and did everything we were supposed to do to win.”
The race was interrupted briefly by four caution periods for 14 laps. The first of which on lap 20 when Marcos Ambrose was sent spinning through the infield grass after contact with Regan Smith, a debris caution on lap 49, and then yet another instance of teammates colliding with one another for the 2010 season. On lap 100, the No. 83 Red Bull Camry of Casey Mears charged into the side Scott Speed’s No. 82 machine in turn 2. Speed was livid, addressing Mears by a rather unpleasant name over the radio and asking, “We’re both in the back running like crap and we’re going to run into each other? Really? Are we really going to do that?!”
From there, things went from bad to worse for Mears, as he would collide shortly after with the No. 6 UPS Ford of David Ragan, while attempting to enter his pit stall. The contact broke the left-front spindle of the No. 83 Toyota, sending him behind the wall and out of the race.
As dominating of a performance as it was, the final laps were not without some drama – or controversy. While Hamlin had extended his lead over second-place Kasey Kahne to over nine seconds, NASCAR threw the fourth and final caution flag for debris on lap 183. There was some confusion as to what and where the debris was, as the leader and other drivers never saw it – however Kahne maintains that it was there.
“Yeah, it was a big piece of debris back there and I saw it. I felt good at the time because I thought we might have a shot. We had made gains and tightened the car up, so I thought maybe I could hang with him. I hung with him for about three laps, running in his dirty air, but he slowly creeped away.”
Carl Edwards, who finished 12th, did not share the sentiment of his fellow Ford driver.
“We had a sixth-place finish going there before NASCAR threw that caution to bunch up the field and that cost us at the end.”
Hamlin who won the race waxed pseudo-philosophical about the debris but was quite clear there was none to be seen.
“No, I didn’t see any debris, if that’s what you’re asking,” Hamlin said. “I mean, we typically get them every single week. I’m not going to say it’s accepted, but what can you do?”
The caution did not alter the winner of the race, but was the catalyst for some spirited battling through the later half of the top 10, back to 20th in the closing laps, producing some of – if not the only – best racing all afternoon, most notably the battle between Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Johnson versus Stewart, a magnificent save by Matt Kenseth exiting turn 4, as well as Mark Martin and the No. 5 team salvaging what was yet another lackluster day spent in the mid-20s with a 16th-place finish – at a track they won at just one year ago.
“I’m all for some of these cautions,” Hamlin said. “You know, if I don’t win the race because maybe I get a bad restart or something, then probably I’m angry because I feel like NASCAR changed the outcome of the race.”
“You know, I understand this is show business.”
Hamlin’s show business blast is likely to get plenty of attention this week, likely erasing any memories or mental images of Joey Logano’s “she wears the fire suit in the family” crack from Pocono. That being said, it appears that as if right now, the only that can slow down Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team, are caution flags of a questionable nature.
The series heads west for next weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., for the first of two road-course races on the Sprint Cup Series calendar.