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Jay Busbee

Anyone but Denny? Hamlin continues his midseason domination

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For nearly four years, even as fans of Jimmie Johnson have celebrated championship after championship, fans of every other driver - and of NASCAR in general - have joined hands in pleading with the racing gods for someone, anyone but Jimmie.

Careful what you wish for. That someone's here, and he's working over NASCAR as efficiently as the 48 team ever has.

On a languid, rapid Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Denny Hamlin continued one of the more remarkable regular-season winning streaks in recent memory, winning his second race in a row and his fifth in the last ten. Hamlin mounted up leads that reached nearly ten seconds, and ran so far ahead of the field that if he hadn't had to to postrace celebrations, he could've been home and relaxing in North Carolina before most of his fellow drivers even reached the finish line.

Like last week at Pocono, the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 was a race of extended green-flag racing capped by a No. 11 victory. Unlike last week, there were no last-minute pileups or postrace showdowns. The race was over in well under three hours, with a minimum of cautions and only two drivers - Hamlin and Kurt Busch - leading the race for more than a handful of laps.

Indeed, the only element of this race approaching fireworks happened about midway through the race, when Casey Mears, driving the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota in place of the sidelined Brian Vickers, slammed into de facto teammate Scott Speed and sent a livid Speed spinning into the infield. Other than that, the entire affair was the NASCAR equivalent of an in-office birthday party - efficient, mildly celebratory, over and done with in short order.

Which was just fine for the guy with the most cake. "We never stopped working, whether we had a nine-tenths of a second lead or a nine-second lead," Hamlin said.

Once he got his feet under him, Hamlin had little trouble holding off Kurt Busch and a surprisingly resurgent Kasey Kahne. Hamlin dominated on both restarts and long runs, and there were far more of the latter than the former.

"If everyone [in the front]'s got an A out there," Busch said, shaking his head in admiration, "the 11 car's got an A-plus."

The key moment in the race for Hamlin came just after the pit stops at lap 100; while pulling off pit road, the car stalled out. Hamlin and the team quickly realized that he'd just lost fuel pressure, and car after car rolled past him while he tried to get the car rolling again.

These are the moments when many drivers lose their mind and their crew chief has to play encouraging mommy and nurturing psychologist all at once, telling their guy to keep his head and stay focused. No such problem for Hamlin. "Got it going," he said over the radio as the car rolled up to speed. "We'll get them [the lost places] back."

And when a debris caution flew - as they always seem to do with just a few laps left in the race and one driver - Hamlin again kept calm. In fact, it's almost as if he knew it was coming.

"We have to do what's right for the fans," he said immediately after the race. "They need to see a great race at the end." A few minutes later, in the postrace press conference, he clarified his comments. "I understand this is a show business," he smiled knowingly. "No, I didn't see any debris. But we typically get [late debris cautions] every single week ... It's still on me to win this race."

Hamlin's turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. After Bristol, Hamlin sat in 19th place, and those 2010 championship hopes seemed dim indeed. Just ten races later, he's in third, carrying a NASCAR-leading 50 bonus points into the Chase. Over the last season's worth of races, Hamlin has won nine of 36 events, while Johnson has won 8. And over the last ten races, Hamlin has won five to Johnson's zero.

Still, the 11 team knows not to get complacent. Recent NASCAR history shows that regular-season success has almost no impact on Chase hopes, whether it's Jeff Gordon in 2007, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards in 2008 or Tony Stewart in 2009. "We looked strong," Hamlin said, "but it's not as easy as it looked today."

Thing is, Hamlin has plenty of reason for confidence. He nearly owns engrave-the-trophy-early status at Pocono, but the fact that he's now won at Michigan and at both short and intermediate tracks should give the rest of the field pause. Over the next three weeks, he'll get to test himself and the 11 team at the final two types of tracks where success has eluded him - road courses and plate racing - and if he can turn in top-5 efforts there, he'll have the rest of the field worried indeed. If he can manage wins, there won't be much sleep in the Johnson household, and not just because of the new baby on the way.

"To unload the car and know you're going to be competitive week in and week out gives you a tremendous amount of confidence," Hamlin said. "For the first time in my career, we're at that place."

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