"Could somebody please point me to victory lane?"
You could forgive Denny Hamlin for being a bit confused. After all, it had been awhile since he'd visited the winners' circle — just once last year after an astonishing eight-win season in 2010 — and even longer since he'd been a factor in the Sprint Cup series. But with a sterling performance the final half of the Subway Fresh Fit 500 in Phoenix, Hamlin wiped away the last vestiges of his forgettable 2011.
You average out the Daytona and the Phoenix races, and you'd have two pretty darn good stories. Problem is, Daytona was one of the great stories of NASCAR history, which means Phoenix was ... well, a race. Long green-flag runs, relatively little passing ... yes, there was a record set for most leaders with 15, but most of those lead changes came during pit-stop switchovers. Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson — the Warriors Three of the 2010 championship — handed the lead back and forth for most of the afternoon.
And so it's somewhat fitting that Hamlin's rebirth -- like a phoenix, if you will -- comes at the exact location where his championship hopes faded in 2010. Questionable pit strategy at Phoenix in the 35th race of 2010 wrecked Hamlin's psyche and eliminated most of his lead; Johnson would go on to defeat him and yank the championship out of his hands. Not this time, though.
"I don't know much, but I think we got us one!" Hamlin exulted as he crossed the finish line. "Man, it feels good to be competitive again! Thank you so much!"
The race also served as a bit of justification for crew chief Darian Grubb, unceremoniously booted from Tony Stewart's team after Stewart won the championship last year. For those of you keeping count, that's two Grubb wins in the last three races. And it puts Hamlin atop the points standings for the first time since late 2010.
"Huge momentum," Hamlin said afterward. "We've never been in this position this early in the season."
Taking nothing away from Hamlin, but several of the series' biggest names took themselves out of the race one way or another. Harvick appeared ready to run Hamlin down, but ran out of gas on the penultimate lap to fall off the pace. Johnson, early on the best car in the field, had trouble with a loose wheel. Carl Edwards never could overcome a poor qualifying effort. Stewart couldn't refire his car after shutting it off to save fuel. And Kasey Kahne, whom many picked before the race as the best car of the bunch, hit the wall early and was never a factor.
It's early yet, but Hamlin has already locked up a huge edge for the rest of the season. He's got plenty of standings room to play with, and his one win was good enough to take the wild card last year. (Barely, but still.)
So, no, it wasn't the most exciting race of the year. But for the 11 team, it'll fit just fine.
- Denny Hamlin