Hamlin's early-season woes in rearview mirror

Jay Hart
Yahoo! Sports
Hamlin's early-season woes in rearview mirror
Denny Hamlin celebrates his first win of 2011

Joe Gibbs and his team started the weekend at Michigan in the principal's office. He and his boys ended it in victory lane.

And while there is no reason to cry foul over Denny Hamlin's victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, the fact that unapproved parts were found Friday in all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars will make for an interesting discussion. More on that in a bit.

As for the on-track action, Hamlin is finally showing the strength he had throughout most of 2010 when he very nearly dethroned Jimmie Johnson. After a slow start in Sunday's Heluva Good! 400, Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford methodically worked on their car, something they had to do if they were going to challenge the Roush Fenway trio of Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, who led for most of the afternoon.

Had fuel not been a factor and a caution not fallen with just a handful of laps to go, Edwards may have just run away with the win. But when Mark Martin forced Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the wall to bring out a caution on Lap 191, the race turned to pit road where Hamlin's crew was most up to the task.

He drove off pit road in first, led the field to green on the final restart, withstood a nearly five-lap challenge from Kenseth and cruised to his first victory of the season.

Hamlin's early-season woes are now a thing of the past, erased by a two-month stretch in which he's posted five top 10s in seven races. At his low point, Hamlin sat 21st in the standings. Sunday's win moved him up to ninth – the first time he's cracked the top 10 since early March.

"My goal is still to get in the top five in points," Hamlin said. "If I wouldn't have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we really could be possibly fighting for trying to lead the points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind; it's going to be tough to do that."

Back to the off-track action, on Friday NASCAR discovered unapproved oil pans in the three JGR cars of Hamlin, Kyle Busch, who finished third Sunday, and Joey Logano. Because the parts were never used in competition, NASCAR officials said they don't expect any points penalty to be forthcoming.

However, a Speed.com report indicated that the oil pans found in the JGR cars weighed between 20 and 30 pounds, whereas the standard oil pan weighs around four pounds. Why the discrepancy? Every car must weigh the same, but where that weight is distributed could change the handling of the car. The logic here, if true, would indicate that JGR was trying to gain a handling advantage, which isn't necessarily illegal.

NASCAR maintained the only issue it had is that parts were never presented for approval.

Team president J.D. Gibbs said teams often bring new parts to the track and then present them to NASCAR for approval. Sometimes NASCAR will allow them to use it that week, but tell them not to bring it back until certain changes are made.

"Our fault was thinking we would have that conversation," Gibbs explained. "When we got here, they didn't like it. I think they thought it was a different issue than it actually wound up being.

"The reality of it is it was our fault for not bringing it to them and laying it out," he continued. "We want to be in this sport; we want to be here with integrity and do things the right way. We made mistakes in the past as a team, and I'm sure we'll make mistakes in the future. If we can't conduct ourselves in the right way, there's no use in us doing this. It's a wake up call for us to make sure we do a better job before bringing parts to the track."

The oil-pan incident comes on the heels of Busch's car failing post-race inspection following last weekend's 5-hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway. The left front of Busch's car was found to be too low. He finished third in that race, too.

What, if any, fine and/or penalties NASCAR will impose should be announced on Tuesday. Not that it will matter to Hamlin. He won Sunday's race with an approved oil pan and a renewed sense of self-confidence.

It's no stretch to add him to the ever-growing list of legit title contenders: Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Busch, Johnson, Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth …

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