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Denny Hamlin wins Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix

The driver holds off Kevin Harvick and leads the last 59 laps of the 312-lap race to earn his 18th Sprint Cup Series victory.

March 04, 2012|By Jim Peltz
  • Denny Hamlin burns out in front of the fans at Phoenix International Raceway after winning the NASCAR Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin burns out in front of the fans at Phoenix International Raceway… (Lesley Ann Miller / Associated…)

Reporting from Avondale, Ariz. -- On a mid-November day in 2010, Denny Hamlin nearly was inconsolable after he climbed from his race car at Phoenix International Raceway.

The Virginian, poised to win his first Sprint Cup Series championship, had dominated the race until his No. 11 Toyota ran short of fuel and required a late pit stop. A stunned Hamlin lost the race and, the next weekend, he lost the title to Jimmie Johnson.

So Hamlin understandably felt a measure of vindication Sunday when he won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 for his first victory at Phoenix, even if this time it was only the second race on the schedule.

"It's a little bit of satisfaction there," said Hamlin, who held off Kevin Harvick and led the last 59 laps of the 312-lap race en route to his 18th Cup win. "It feels good."

Harvick, who ran out of fuel on the final lap, finished second and Greg Biffle was third. Johnson, the five-time champion, was fourth.

Hamlin also took over the early-season title standings, leading by six points over Biffle, eight over Harvick and 10 over Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, who finished 13th Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 14th after his second-place finish at Daytona, was fifth in the Cup standings, 17 points behind Hamlin.

Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and finished fourth in the Daytona 500, wasn't the only one enjoying a comeback of sorts. His new crew chief, Darian Grubb, was also.

Grubb had been Tony Stewart's crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing but was cut loose after last year's regular season, even before he helped Stewart win the championship during the 10-race Chase for the Cup.

"I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication" with Sunday's win, "but I really don't think that way," Grubb said. "I feel like I came into a very good situation."

But Hamlin, who finished ninth in the Cup standings last season with one victory, said, "We've still got work to do.

"I honestly feel like it's going to be, realistically, two months before we're totally clicking and knowing exactly what each other is saying," Hamlin said.

Several drivers took turns leading phases of the race; Harvick led 88 laps, Johnson led 55 and Kyle Busch led 52 before finishing sixth.

But Hamlin, 31, had the superior car at the end when many drivers were worried about having enough fuel to reach the checkered flag.

"When I felt like [Harvick] was getting too close, we would step up a little bit," Hamlin said.

Indeed, when Harvick was asked whether he could have caught Hamlin even if fuel hadn't been an issue, Harvick replied, "I don't think so. Our cars were pretty evenly matched. I don't know that there would have been enough time."

The race included only one major multicar accident on the one-mile Phoenix oval, which was repaved and slightly reconfigured last year.

AJ Allmendinger, Paul Menard and Jamie McMurray tangled on Lap 133, sending Allmendinger's Dodge and Menard's Chevy into the Turn 4 wall.

Earlier, Casey Mears slammed into the Turn 2 wall to cause a caution period, and Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer both scraped the Turn 4 wall in separate incidents.

Kahne, winner of November's Phoenix race, needed lengthy repairs on his No. 5 Chevrolet and finished 34th.

james.peltz@latimes.com

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