Hamlin pulls off emotional Pocono win
LONG POND, Pa. -- Babe Ruth, Joe Namath, and Denny Hamlin.
Like the Babe at Wrigley, Hamlin called his shot. Like Joe Willie before the Super Bowl, Hamlin told everyone he would win.
When Hamlin talks, you better listen. The man means business. And this race, the best Pocono event in years, meant a little more.
Hamlin earned his first victory of the season Monday at Pocono in one of the most emotional moments of his career, only a few days after his grandmother passed away.
Tears flowed as Hamlin sat in Victory Lane when the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 was over. He found it difficult to speak afterward.
"We've come close in a lot of races this year and come up short," Hamlin said as the TV cameras rolled. "But we had some angels with us today."
Angels and total confidence.
Hamlin never doubted he could take the checkered flag in the No. 11 Toyota. He walked in the media center Friday morning and said, "I expect to win this race."
Hamlin didn't crack a smile. He wasn't being flippant. He said what he felt in his heart, not his head. And on Monday, he revealed a little secret: He really didn't think his car was better than all the others.
"I'll be honest, it really had nothing to do with that," Hamlin said. "I just felt we were going to get a lot of help from a lot of different places."
Hamlin got plenty of help over the years from his grandmother, Thelma Clark.
"She lost all her sight a couple of weeks ago," Hamlin said. "Up until then, she had a 30-inch TV and she would watch the races from about four inches away. That's how she could see me. She always said a prayer for me and she always wore her No. 11 socks."
Those thoughts crossed Hamlin's mind when he made his prediction Friday. But for a guy who hadn't won in the past 50 Sprint Cup races, it was a heck of a bold statement.
And Hamlin was absolutely right. He had the car to beat all day, and a beautiful blue-sky afternoon after a Sunday monsoon postponed the race.
But this was no easy task. Hamlin had to persevere through the wildest Pocono show in years.
The giant 2.5-mile triangle track has earned its reputation as one of the most boring race venues in NASCAR. Until Monday, that is, when it became the Bermuda Triangle.
The new double-file restart rule did it again, making a contest on one of NASCAR's worst tracks into a race to remember.
Three-wide racing heading into treacherous Turn 1. Bumping and banging up front on every restart as drivers battled for position. Strategic calls to get drivers from the back to the front to try to hold on.
It was a big day for several drivers who needed some good news. Juan Pablo Montoya finished second, one week after a pit-road speeding penalty cost him a probable victory at Indianapolis.
Clint Bowyer finished a season-best third, placing him back in the game for a chance at making the Chase.
But Montoya and Bowyer couldn't top one man on a mission.
Hamlin's boss was happy to see it. J.D. Gibbs, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said few people realize how close Hamlin was to his grandmother.
"His grandmother really was his No. 1 fan," Gibbs said. "But when something like this happens and the emotions are so high, you can take it two ways. To see Denny perform like he did today was a big deal. I think he realizes what really matters and to stand for that and fight for it."
Hamlin, who led most of the race, would have to dig down deep to get back to the front at the end. A two-tire change caused him to fall back. He was 14th with 30 laps to go.
At that point, Hamlin made up his mind. All or nothing. No points racing this time. He was going for broke.
If you drive hard like that every week, it opens up a window of error that can cost you. There were many times today that I nearly wrecked.” -- Denny Hamlin
"The emotions came out on every lap," Hamlin said. "I was trying to get everything I could get. I had dominated races before and not won them. I was not going to let this one slip away, not on this weekend, one that meant more than any other."
On the final restart with 13 laps remaining, Hamlin was sixth. He had a message for his crew. One more prediction:
"We're going to win this race," he said.
Determination and desire were the difference this time.
Hamlin took advantage of three cars bumping ahead of him and moved to second, zooming past them up by the wall. He set sail for the leader, Bowyer, easily passing him for the lead with 10 laps left.
Hamlin took his chances and got it done. Sometimes, that isn't the right thing to do.
"If you drive hard like that every week, it opens up a window of error that can cost you," Hamlin said. "There were many times today that I nearly wrecked.
"It paid off today. Try that next week and we might end up on the hook with 20 [laps] to go."
Hamlin didn't care about that Monday. He wanted to win. He had to win, not because he said he would. He won it for his biggest fan, his grandmother.
"She was 91 years old and had a great run," Hamlin said. "She understood how much she meant to me. Today she's pretty proud."
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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