Hamlin shows true grit in Texas win
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The guy with one good leg was the last man standing.
Denny "Pegleg" Hamlin, the man who walks with a limp and grits his teeth at the pain, won the Samsung Mobile 500 because he's a survivor in more ways than one.
Hamlin made it through the carnage Monday that took out most of the best cars with 17 laps to go. The man who fought through the post-surgery aches and swelling in his left knee one week ago showed he could tough it out in the tough times.
Hamlin is a gamer. He didn't have the best car Monday. He did have the most desire. The driver who wouldn't quit last week at Phoenix didn't quit at Texas Motor Speedway.
This time it paid off. Hamlin was only 10 days removed for ACL surgery last week for the Phoenix race. He finished 30th with a car that had electrical problems.
Many people, including me, felt he should have gotten out of the car on a pit stop to protect his ailing knee and allow Casey Mears to finish the race for him. Hamlin stayed in the seat to the end.
"Getting out of the car would have been the easy thing to do," Hamlin said Monday. "We were way behind, so a lot of guys would have said, 'Our day [is] shot to hell, so let him take over.' "
Hamlin felt that would have sent the wrong message, so he drove to the finish.
"I did it for team morale," Hamlin said. "And it paid off this weekend. If I would have gotten out, who knows if those guys would have been behind me this week? They would have thought I gave up on them. I knew they would give their left leg for me. I wanted to show I would do the same for them."
Hamlin has won two of the last three Cup races, one before surgery and one after. He started the year as the man many experts predicted to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the title, but a poor start and the knee surgery made some people doubt him.
Hamlin injured his knee in a January pickup basketball game. He hoped to wait until after the season to have the surgery, but decided he had to go ahead and get it done.
"I did it for September," Hamlin said. "I knew come Chase time if I was lucky enough to be in that top 12 it would make me more prepared to make that championship run."
Johnson is the man Hamlin wants to catch, but it was Johnson who couldn't catch Hamlin at the end Monday. Johnson finished second after fighting for the lead earlier in the day with teammate Jeff Gordon.
"Denny's team has been the real deal for a long time," Johnson said. "We've been focused on them since the end of last season.
"Naturally, I think it will take some time to heal [Hamlin's knee]. But the bigger the track is, like Texas, the easier it is for him to adjust."
Hamlin knows he still has some difficult days ahead.
"I'm still not 100 percent by any means," he said. "I'm 60 percent at best. I just got to where I can make one rotation on an [exercise] bicycle. It's borderline depressing.
"We're still a good month away to get back to where I was. I didn't feel I could give up a month, so I still have to perform."
He performed well in earning his first victory at TMS, the first race with the rear spoiler on a 1.5-mile oval.
"I think it made for better racing," Hamlin said. "It's a step in the right direction for our sport in how it looks and the competition side."
It sure made Jeff Gordon look good. He had the best car all day and led 124 laps, but a late restart was his doom. Gordon and Stewart bumped and started a nine-car wreck that ended their day.
"It was just a lot of guys racing hard and we ran out of room," Gordon said. "But, man, what a race car we had. That's why I'm so bummed out right now."
Hamlin was pretty bummed out a week ago, finishing 30th and wondering when the pain would end.
His rehab remains a work in progress, but he found the ultimate pain reliever -- a victory that proved he's tough enough to get it done.
"I knew we could come back stronger," Hamlin said. "I never doubt this race team."
Based on the last two weeks, they won't doubt him, either.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.