After a complete washout in Texas over the weekend, the Samsung Mobile 500 finally got underway Monday afternoon. The 500-mile event around the Texas Motor Speedway saw teams take the green flag with very little practice, a green race track and many unknowns surrounding the new rear spoiler.
Another unknown on the minds of many in the garage was how long Denny Hamlin would stay in the car. Weeks removed from surgery on the ACL in his left knee, Hamlin admitted to still being in pain, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver expected to tough it out all day long. For the second race in a row, Casey Mears was on hand to step in as a relief driver if Hamlin needed to exit the car at any point. However, the only time Hamlin could have used help getting out of the car was as he climbed out to collect his first Texas Motor Speedway trophy at the end of the day.
The 334-lap race featured fierce competition all day long between two of the sport’s best drivers and teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The duo raced each other hard for much of the afternoon as they battle for the lead, beating and banging fenders, ruffling each others’ feathers and putting on a great show for the loyal fans that stuck it out on Monday. At one point after Johnson hit the No. 24 in the door, Gordon told his crew Johnson simply wants to be raced different than everyone else – and Gordon had no intention of giving him that luxury.
Enjoying a sizable lead late in the race, Gordon’s chances at a safe victory went away as the engine expired on the No. 00 of David Reutimann. With just over 20 laps remaining, the field headed in for service for the final time of the day as crew chiefs called for various strategies up and down pit road.
Jeff Burton won the race off pit road by taking no tires, as Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch all opted for two tires. Taking four tires, Johnson was able to beat his teammate Gordon off pit road as the pair restarted seventh and eighth respectively.
Restarting the race with just 18 laps left, it was go time and the intensity in the pack showed that. As Burton jumped out to the lead, Earnhardt Jr. dove under Stewart to make it three wide. On older tires, Stewart backed off and caused a log jam behind him. With the No. 14 hung on the outside, Gordon made it three wide under Stewart, with Johnson to his inside. Stewart and Gordon made contact, Stewart was unable to hang on and what resulted was a Talladega-style nine-car pile-up and a 20 minute 28 second red flag period.
Searching for his first win since the Texas race last season, Gordon led a race-high 124 laps, but ended the day in 31st out of the race.
“Every second, every position counts on those restarts with that few of laps to go,” Gordon said. “I saw Tony backing up and then he got loose. I was trying not to get in to him. I ended up getting underneath him and we were three wide. Then I saw the 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. I got clipped in the right rear and turned me in the wall. Just glad I am ok. Man, what a race car. Gosh what a race car we had. That is what I am bummer out the most about right now is that we just had such an awesome race car.”
Now with the strongest car sitting in a heap of sheet metal in the garage, the race opened up to a number of competitors who had played second-fiddle all day long – including Jimmie Johnson.
Restarting the race with 12 laps to go, Denny Hamlin was able to power around Jeff Burton on the outside to take the top-spot on the restart. With how aggressive the No. 11 was driving on that final restart, it was hard to imagine the driver inside can barely make one rotation on an exercise bike.
Johnson charged hard after the restart, but lost all of his momentum when he tagged the wall. Recovering from the contact and with laps ticking away, Johnson dropped the hammer and set his sights on the No. 11 car. Closing on his back bumper, Johnson simply ran out of time as Hamlin drove it to the checkered flag.
The win by Hamlin seemed to catch most off guard, as many had expected a long recovery following the major surgery just weeks ago. Yet, being the true competitor he is, Hamlin was able to fight through the pain, keep his car out of trouble all day and put himself in position when it mattered most.
“It was just one of those days where the pieces of the puzzle came together, and I felt like it was a winning effort overall,” Hamlin said.
By focusing on the long-term good of the team, Hamlin was willing to sacrifice a short-term loss in order to be a contender when the Chase rolled around at the end of the year. Surprising many, Hamlin proved despite his ongoing recovery, the team can still get the job done.
“You know, I’m still not 100% by any means right now. I feel like I’m 60 at best,” Hamlin said. “But I did this for September. I knew that if I did it now, come Chase time, if I’m lucky enough to be in one of those top 12 positions, it was going to make me more prepared to make a run for the championship at that time.”
Despite his win, Hamlin admits his recovery is nowhere close to being over. His rehabilitation is ongoing, with trips to orthopedists, training on exercise bikes, ice-downs, etc, and Hamlin expects it to be another month before he is back to where he wants to be.
While a win at Texas was a shot of confidence to this team, there are still a number of hurtles yet to overcome on the race track – along with in the rehab center.
Next week the series heads to the always dangerous Talladega Superspeedway. One hard hit could add more pain to an already painful situation. The following week, Hamlin heads to his hometrack of Richmond International Raceway. With four top-3 finishes Hamlin is always a favorite at the ¾-mile short track. However, with a bad knee, 400 laps around the tight short track could be quite the task for Hamlin.
This No. 11 team is in no way out of the ballpark when it comes to overcoming obstacles, but thanks to Hamlin and his team’s effort on Monday, those challenges are looking a little bit easier to overcome.
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