The latest 500-mile marathon at Pocono turned into a numbers game, a NASCAR story of two men, two racers striving to be the best when only one could stand on top. The first is a future Hall of Famer; the second man aspires to be. On their own, they hold separate levels of accomplishments within this sport but until Sunday were connected by only one: the number four.
That’s the number of victories both Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin owned on this 2.5-mile triangle, tops amongst drivers who qualified for the 50 (err… 5) –Hour Energy 500. They actually started side-by-side, occupying the second row but both men, runner-up to Jimmie Johnson during his five-year reign are well acquainted with how second equals the first loser. Instead, their agendas centered around a fifth career victory here, coming up to speed knowing just the slightest hint of desperation revolved around their short-term futures.
At the start, it looked like Hamlin, not Gordon, would find relief from the growing pressure surrounding his organization. Winless after a sluggish start, last season’s point leader with three races left has looked like a driver destined to miss the playoffs. With just two top-5 and five top-10 finishes, Hamlin’s been lucky to salvage 11th in the standings during a year that’s been dubbed the “runner-up hangover.” Tough luck and inconsistency has plagued him, illustrated perfectly over the past two weeks; he ran tenth at Charlotte, running out of fuel off the final turn while headed for second only to earn a podium finish at Kansas (third) for saving fuel the following Sunday. No doubt, while teammate Kyle Busch has both impressed and repulsed with “unique” on and off-track behavior Hamlin’s season has been, well, pretty much invisible by comparison at Joe Gibbs Racing.
That’s why this race at Pocono meant so much to the No. 11’s future. While trying to downplay it, remaining stoic in the face of Friday’s questioning, Hamlin’s words clearly demonstrated the impact of what this track means to him.
“You just have a little more confidence, I guess you could say, when we come here,” he said. “I know what feel that I’m searching for in the race car, know what I want to be competitive and to win. It’s easier for me to give good feedback, I feel like. Those type of race tracks — that’s why when we win somewhere, we win multiple times is because once I get this feel that I like then it’s kind of easy to duplicate.”
That proof is easy to find as of late, leading 276 laps there in his last four starts including 76 of the first 101 circuits on Sunday. Growing a lead of over six seconds at one point, the FedEx Toyota should have been halfway to China by the checkered flag if not for 2011’s ugly, ugly habit cropping up at the wrong time: self-inflicted mistakes.
It started on pit road, trouble with the left-front tire costing Hamlin nearly ten seconds on the track during one green-flag stop. It was a lead he’d never get back, Juan Pablo Montoya fending him off with the clean air these cars love until yet another pit road problem sprouted its head. With around 40 to go, a tire change under yellow resulted in a left-rear tire without a valve stem; going flat in a heartbeat, Hamlin dropped from third (where teammate Kyle Busch wound up finishing) to a 21st-place track position nightmare that never ended.
“Nothing really went our way,” he said after wrapping up a disappointing 19th – his worst Pocono finish in two years. “We were coasting at the beginning [but] we struggled a little bit on pit road.”
“When we left pit road and had a flat tire, it’s just not your day. When it did that, it just sheared the tire, broke a brake line so I had no brakes… just a slew of problems.”
The “no brakes” excuse erases part of that bittersweet taste for Hamlin; to some extent, there was nothing he could do. Still… that’s two races at two tracks now, both in this driver’s back pocket in recent years where instead he wound up giving points away like Santa Claus. Remember Martinsville, a streak of nine straight top-6 finishes ended with this spring’s 12th-place result? Track position and crew mistakes were the key to that one, too, falling a lap down and needing a wave-around after pitting early during a round of green-flag stops.
Some might say Hamlin could have persevered better, fighting through adversity for better finishes. But it doesn’t matter; whoever’s at fault, the bottom line is he’s left 30 points on the table in those two events, the difference between twelfth in the standings – where he currently sits – and a more-than-comfortable eighth. More importantly, unless there’s a victory in Michigan next week the No. 11 is likely looking winless through at least Loudon in mid-July, putting their Chase chances in serious jeopardy considering the “wild card” is probably no longer an option.
“We’re trying to get in there by points,” said Hamlin Friday. “If you’re a wild card then that means you’re not in the top-10 in points. We’re not going to be really worried about that or counting on that at this point anyway.”
In that case, their consistency better kick in … now. It’s a problem shared by Gordon this season, a roller-coaster year with new crew chief Alan Gustafson seeing big-time highs (a Phoenix victory) and devastating lows (hitting the Richmond wall with no SAFER Barrier). Outside the top 10 in points, the only thing Gordon had clinging him to the Chase was the “wild card” spot Hamlin soundly rejected; but without a multi-win season since 2007, the last time he seriously challenged for a title, those postseason chances were looking tenuous, too.
Not to worry, though. Once Hamlin fell out of the picture, the race cracked wide open, track position tilted Gordon’s way, and he sensed an opportunity. It’s what veterans do, particularly those whose Cup Series win total is eclipsed by no one not named David Pearson or Richard Petty.
“We weren’t necessarily the fastest car,” said crew chief Alan Gustafson. “But we were the most consistent, solid team at the racetrack today.”
That also applied to shifting, a wrinkle that ripped apart the days of several Cup contenders. For while many drivers started tearing up transmissions early, Gordon developed a rhythm that worked for him.
“I was pretty conservative when it came to shifting,” he said. “The first hundred laps of this race, I guarantee you I shifted less than any other car out there. It wasn’t because I was trying to save the equipment. It’s just that it was easier to drive. What I noticed is as we started making adjustments on the car and the pace started to drop, the track started getting slicker, I had to start getting that rpm range up there. I got into clean air and was racing with the leader, like the [Nos.] 22 and the 11, those guys. I knew it was time to step it up. I knew at the end of this race I had to do that and had to be comfortable with it.”
He was, and an easy victory followed suit to give him two for the season. It’s a number Gordon thinks could still be overcome, but with 12 races left? With the type of guys outside the top 20? It’s hard to see two others beating him with three. That means all of a sudden, priorities switch in a season where people are taking more risks to steal victories; for Gordon, learning how to finish 10th again now becomes as important as sealing the deal.
“I feel like I still have a lot to offer in the car, and I think that the things that I do have, some are better when I was younger and more aggressive and some are weaker,” he said. “But I feel like I have a pretty good balance even though I’m 40 and haven’t won as much.”
“We have to enjoy this day, enjoy this win, carry momentum. To me, we’ve carried a lot of momentum on these last few weeks to get this win. This is going to continue. I’m excited about the next couple weeks. I love Michigan, one of my favorite tracks. I think we’re on to some things. We had a great road course test this past week that I’m excited about Sonoma, as well. I don’t even know what the next race is after that, but I’m excited about it (laughter).”
This Sunday, Jeff Gordon reminded us of the confidence that’s made him a four-time champion. Denny Hamlin was reminded today of what it’ll take to be one.
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