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Menzer: Hamlin earns crowning achievement of career

NASCAR.com

Denny Hamlin has won six Sprint Cup races inside his native state of Virginia, including twice at the venue he considers his "home track" at Richmond International Raceway.

He also has registered a signature win at Darlington, long regarded as one of NASCAR's toughest tracks.

But when Hamlin won for the first time at Bristol Motor Speedway last Saturday night, capturing a thrilling Irwin Tools Night Race in front of an enthusiastic packed house, he somewhat surprisingly appeared to consider it the crowning achievement of his seven-year career as a full-time Cup driver.

For now, that is.

"You're counting down the laps and starting to think about it with about 10 to go -- what it would mean to win. You're just hoping you're going to get to see the white flag [signifying one lap remaining]," Hamlin said. "It's tough to say what it means. I grew up watching this race so many times, and all the great finishes. This is just a milestone type of race that you always want to win. They've got one of the best trophies of all tracks, and it's going to be one of my prized possessions. This is obviously my biggest win.

"You dream about winning at this place and I had come so close. I had led on the last lap at this track and never won."

This time he took over the lead from Carl Edwards on Lap 462 and led the last 38 for his third win of the season. Not only was it a crucial milestone win in Hamlin's head, but on paper it was a critical achievement in terms of setting up his No. 11 Toyota team for a strong run in the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup. He's now tied with three others for most wins in the series this season.

The big picture

Hamlin entered the race 10th in the point standings, only 33 ahead of Kasey Kahne and 38 in front of Edwards. Like Hamlin, Kahne came into the night with two race wins already in his 2012 pocket. Edwards was desperately seeking win No. 1 and made no secret of the fact that he was willing to do just about anything to get it.

So at one point in the race, when Kahne was leading and looking as if he might have the dominant car, Hamlin was in danger of losing ground in his effort to stay in the top 10. The same premise applied later, but with a different twist, when Edwards attempted to stretch his fuel and became the leader.

If Kahne had earned win No. 3 of the season instead of Hamlin, it's quite possible Hamlin would have been in real danger of dropping out of the top 10 in points over the final two races and be faced with claiming a wild-card spot in the Chase rather than getting in through the front door. That was important to Hamlin for a couple of reasons: wild-card entries into the Chase don't get three bonus points for each of their regular-season wins, while Chasers who finish in the top 10 in points after the first 26 races do; and also, Hamlin said he was thinking of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, each with one win of their own and locked in their own Titantic-type struggles to earn wild-card spots.

Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb both admitted they had thoughts about all of the above swirling in their heads at some points Saturday night. Grubb said he was particularly concerned when the car started overheating at one point and "we were puking water out of it. That was the first time I thought about the points situation. ... You just want to make sure you don't lose the engine in the car, but Denny did a great job of managing it from there."

An engine failure and DNF instead of a win would have produced a possibly catastrophic swing in the points for Hamlin, especially if Kahne or Edwards had been able to stay out front.

Sprint Cup Series
No. 11 car all-time victories
Cale Yarborough 55
Ned Jarrett 49
Darrell Waltrip 43
Denny Hamlin 20
Junior Johnson 11
Bill Elliot 6
Geoff Bodine 4
Terry Labonte 4
Bobby Allison 3
Buddy Baker 2
A.J. Foyt 1
Mario Andretti 1
Parnelli Jones 1

You think three points might matter in the Chase? How about one? Last year Tony Stewart won the championship on a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards after they finished tied in the final points.

"We saw how much one point mattered in the Chase last year," Hamlin said.

As for the second portion of their worries, had Hamlin at any point fallen out of the top 10 in points before the Chase cutoff following the race at Richmond in two weeks, he knew he'd still almost certainly be in as a wild card -- but without the bonus points and at the likely expense of either one or both of his teammates.

"So our best option for our race team and to get more cars [into the Chase for JGR] was to win, if the 18 [of Busch] or the 20 [of Logano] couldn't," Hamlin said.

Making history

In doing so, Hamlin not only gained his own personal "milestone" victory -- but also earned the 200th all-time victory for the No. 11 car in the Sprint Cup Series. Cars adorning that number have been driven over the years by a slew of legendary drivers, including NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough. The win also was the 20th of Hamlin's still-young Cup career, giving him 10 percent of the wins registered by the iconic No. 11 car.

"You look at the names of the guys who have driven that car, and I'm just a speck on that stat sheet of wins for this number," Hamlin said. "But you know, hopefully by the time I'm done years down the road, whoever takes the 11 after that will try to live up to what we accomplished."

There is more to be done, of course.

"Who knows where it ends, but this is a number that's been big in NASCAR history," Hamlin said. "It's been connected to a lot of championships."

Hamlin has been close. He finished second to Jimmie Johnson in 2010, famously losing the title when it had been his to lose with two races to go.

He had been close at Bristol before Saturday night, too, without closing the deal. So maybe he's onto something here.

It is a trend he would like to continue all the way through the season finale at Homestead this time. Then he might have another career milestone to talk about.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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