KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Through the first eight races of 2011, Denny Hamlin's only top 10 was a seventh-place finish at Las Vegas. He had four finishes outside the top 20. If it wouldn't have been for his win at Michigan in June, he would have missed the Chase.
At Kansas Speedway during Sunday's STP 400, the eighth race of the 2012 season, Hamlin was a fixture in the top five all day and made his second trip to victory lane with new crew chief Darian Grubb, passing Martin Truex Jr. with 31 laps to go after the sun broke through the clouds.
"It felt like all day I was behind the 56, and his car looked so superior to the field," Hamlin said. "We just needed some kind of change, whether weather, adjustments or something, to be where he was at and we kind of got both of them."
Yeah, it's way too early to talk about points, but Hamlin and Tony Stewart are now the only two drivers with two wins this season. Because just one win was enough to get Hamlin into last year's Chase via the wild card, two at this point makes the postseason highly likely.
On Sunday, at least six cars had engine issues, including the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon, which dropped a cylinder during the race's final green-flag run, and pole-sitter AJ Allmendinger, who had engine problems after leading the race's first 44 laps. Temperatures hovered around 60 degrees all day and the race was run under cloud cover until the final stretch. Teams also were forced to run a different gear setting than they had in previous Kansas races.
"We lucked out in some ways, I feel like, by finishing 21st," Gordon said. "It could have been a lot worse. We struggled today; we missed the setup, and we were still going to finish seventh or 8th, so I think that says a lot about our race team.
"But yeah, we obviously had a valve spring I believe, something in the valve train that broke. They gave us more gear here this time and I think that took a toll on not only us, but on a lot of guys out there. I felt like it was turning a lot of RPM. Even though we have a rev limiter to keep it from going over what we think it needs and it never did, but still, it caused a problem."
The most spectacular engine failure of the day was Bobby Labonte, who blew up under caution while entering pit road.
"It must have broke a rod or piston, or pistons and rods, or whatever," Labonte said. We had some terrible vibration there at one time and we had to pit because something was wrong and then went back out and it was loose. The car filled up with smoke, so I'm figuring the rear tires were full of oil, oil from the oil tank, and then the caution comes out and it blows up on pit road."
As for Hamlin, it's still difficult to grasp exactly where he is competitively. Is he closer to the championship form he showed in 2010 or the inconsistency from last year? The answer, right now, probably lies somewhere in between.
"I personally am comfortable with myself as a driver," Hamlin said after picking up career win No. 19. "I know what my abilities are. ... I feel like I can race with anyone in this sport.
"It's just so much about how good your communication with your crew chief is, how good your cars are, how good your pit crew is. It's more of a team sport now than what it's ever been. It's not just about the driver. ... Crew chiefs have won races when they don't have the best car, but it's been a long time since the best driver took a 15th-place car and won with it based off of what he did inside the car. It's just so hard nowadays. The cars are running so fast that it's a lot of what happens in the shop that dictates how your weekend goes."
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