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Hamlin breaks drought with victory at Pocono

August 04, 2009|Keith Groller

LONG POND, PA. — On Friday, Denny Hamlin said he expected to win the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway.

By Saturday, he was thinking he had put his foot in his mouth.

"Our car wasn't very good," he said.

But on Monday, it was.

When the smoke cleared and the dust settled after an accident-filled final 60 laps, Hamlin had pulled in front and was on his way to his first win of the season in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. The race was delayed a day because of rain.

It was Hamlin's fifth career win and third at Pocono, where he swept both races in 2006.

This one may have been the most meaningful for the 28-year-old Chesterfield, Va., native because it came only three days after the death of his grandmother, 91-year-old Thelma Clark, who Hamlin called his biggest fan.

"She had lost her sight totally a couple of weeks ago, but she had a 30-inch TV that she still looked at from about four inches away," Hamlin said. "That's how she could see me, see my car.

"She understands the competition of the sport and she understood how much she meant to me."

Hamlin had led five times for 81 laps earlier in the race but had also fallen as far back as 13th with 30 laps left.

Frustrated, Hamlin initiated a collision with David Reutimann with 25 laps to go. It was something that Hamlin felt bad about later because he was the aggressor.

"It was a lot of emotion," he said. "I got guys in my mirror that I know I've got to race for the win. I'm racing for a win on a particular weekend where it means more than any other weekend.

"I think emotion was probably a part of it. But you know, I've got to make it up to those guys somehow, cut them some breaks on the track or something."

It was the emotion that fueled Hamlin in the Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry on every lap. The biggest lap of the day was No. 191.

Bunched together with Juan Pablo Montoya and Clint Bowyer, Hamlin navigated his way past both, and once in front, he was uncatchable. "[Bowyer] didn't put up a fight," Hamlin said. "I was kind of surprised."

Hamlin hadn't won since Martinsville, Va., in March 2008, 50 races ago.

"A little bit of doubt was creeping in," he said. "A lot of it is from what I read, 'We can't close . . . We led how many laps and didn't get a win.' That's pressure I put on myself. I read too much into it. But in the grand scheme of things, we've had the most solid car that hasn't had a Hendrick [Motorsports] label on it. We're taking strides forward today."

Reigning three-time series champion Jimmie Johnson was three laps down at one point but came back to finish 13th.

Points leader Tony Stewart, who was on the pole Friday but began at the back of the field in a backup car after a practice-lap crash on Saturday, managed to go from 41st position to as high as fifth with 30 laps left and settled for 10th.

Montoya was also a surprise, finishing second when he was as far back as 31st with half of the race left.

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keith.groller@mcall.com

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