Coming into the 2011 season, many figured Denny Hamlin would be the man to beat right out of the gate. Leading the standings into the final race of the year in 2010, Hamlin came up short in the championship hunt last season, but gave Jimmie Johnson his biggest threat to date.
However, 2011 has not gone according to plan for Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team. Fifteen races into the season last year Hamlin had four victories. On Sunday, he repeated as the winner at Michigan International Speedway, but it was his first victory of the season.
“We were truly dominant one year ago in this race,” Hamlin said. “We were a second to third place car. In the fall we finished second. But today we actually were a little worse. But we got a win. That’s very uplifting for me, is to win when you don’t necessarily have the best car all day, but you have the car good at the end when it really counts.”
That is exactly what Hamlin needs to get him back in the hunt for this year’s Chase. Entering the day 12th in points, Hamlin was not in a Chase position and had no wins to earn him the Wild Card spot. Yet by taking the win on Sunday, Hamlin’s Chase hopes were rekindled as he moved into ninth in points.
“From here on out, we know we’re one win away from having a Chase spot,” Hamlin said. “My goal is still to get in the top five in points. If I wouldn’t have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we really could be possibly fighting for trying to lead the points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind, it’s going to be tough to do that.”
Hamlin was able to score the win thanks to the fast work of his Mike Ford-led pit crew. While the race appeared as though it would be determined yet again by fuel mileage, a caution flew with only eight laps to go and brought the field to pit road. Hamlin’s team was able to beat Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards back on the track and hold off the late-race charge from Kenseth.
“It was nice to be able to race but I didn’t do a great job in the restart and I spun my tires,” Kenseth said. “Denny saw me hanging back a little bit and took off. Once he was clear it was really hard to pass, especially on a short run like that. The track gets all black and slimy from this new tire. My car wasn’t real good on a short run anyway. I didn’t have enough to get around him once he cleared us there.”
Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Mark Martin and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 10.
The final caution of the day came after contact between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. cut the tire on the No. 88 Chevrolet. A few laps after the contact that sent Earnhardt into the wall, the right front tire blew on Earnhardt’s car and sent him hard into the outside wall.
Finishing the day in 21st, Earnhardt Jr. was not too pleased with how his teammate raced him, saying he tries not to be careless and does not like “putting up with carelessness.”
“He come up there, he knew I was up there, but, he was just running hard,” Earnhardt Jr. said of Martin. “If they tables were turned, I would have been smarter and give him plenty of room than he did me. He is older me, been racing forever and knows a lot more than I’ll ever get or he has forgot more stuff than I’ll never know. Still, I take better care of people than that.”
Martin, on the other hand, simply said he made a mistake and he does not believe the issue will cause a problem between the teammates.
“I don’t have a history of having problems. I don’t think I have one now,” he said. “I think we will get it sorted out. I feel like I give everybody on the race track respect. I made a mistake.”