<
>

The right man won Sunday at Michigan

6/13/2010 - NASCAR

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Denny Hamlin said he knew it was coming. No doubt most of the fans in the grandstands knew it was coming. Probably most of America watching at home knew it was coming.

A debris caution came late in the Heluva Good! 400, the yellow flag that always seems to fall when a race is headed toward a ho-hum ending.

And this race was a yawner, to be sure. Hamlin was stinking up the show, leading Kasey Kahne by more than 10 seconds with 19 laps to go when the inevitable caution flag flew.

Fortunately, the right man won. No one could manufacture anything different. Hamlin is the hottest man in NASCAR, winning his second consecutive race and his fifth of the season.

But this one should have been a laugher.

"I might as well have backed off and saved my tires," Hamlin said, knowing a caution would erase his giant lead. "No, I didn't see any debris, but I understand it's show business. I'm not saying it's accepted, but what can you do?"

NASCAR officials said there was debris that came off a car. Kahne insists he saw something on the track.

"It was a big piece of debris back there," Kahne said, not specifying what it was. "I saw it."

Of course, it was in Kahne's best interest to see something. Drivers behind the leader late in races have experienced debris hallucinations for years. Sometimes they've even made the debris themselves by slyly tossing something out of their car.

Kahne didn't do that Sunday. And I honestly don't know whether there was or wasn't debris on the track. But everyone watching had a pretty good idea a caution was coming.

Conspiracy theories about mystery debris cautions have been a part of NASCAR since it started.

I've always taken the high road on this topic, feeling that NASCAR's job is to err on the side of caution. If there's any doubt about something being on the track that could cause an accident, drop the yellow and check it out.

It's a tough job, spotting debris on a large racetrack, especially a wide 2-mile oval such as Michigan. It's easy to make a mistake and think you see something that wasn't actually there. And sometimes the debris blows off the track before safety officials can pick it up.

But the 2010 season has brought more scrutiny about the issue in an environment in which NASCAR has taken steps to spice up the show -- multiple green-white-checkered finishes, double-file restarts late in races and a have-at-it-boys philosophy.

So Hamlin didn't flinch when he saw the caution lights come on as he was breezing to an easy victory in the No. 11 Toyota.

"We typically see these [late debris cautions] every week," Hamlin said. "If I hadn't won, I guess I would be angry. But we have to do what's right for the fans to see a great race."

Is it the right thing? NASCAR has done a lot of good things in the past two seasons to try to make races more entertaining and more exciting.

We typically see these [late debris cautions] every week. If I hadn't won, I guess I would be angry. But we have to do what's right for the fans to see a great race.

-- Denny Hamlin

I applaud NASCAR for it. But where do you draw the line?

A man with a 10-second lead with 19 laps to go shouldn't be penalized in the name of improving the show. Again, I don't know that that happened.

I do know it's quite a coincidence, and one that virtually everyone at Michigan International Speedway expected to see. I also know one driver said he saw debris and one driver said he didn't.

This time, the late caution didn't change the outcome. Hamlin easily got the jump on Kahne on the final restart with 14 laps to go. Hamlin won by 1.2 seconds.

"It's so easy to drive a car like this," Hamlin said. "The team made me look good. Once we got out front, it was amazingly fast. It seems like right now we just can't miss. I'm starting to know how Jimmie [Johnson] felt the last four years."

Johnson started third and finished sixth. He's now two victories behind Hamlin this season. Kevin Harvick, who finished 19th, remains the points leader by 22 over Kyle Busch, who finished 20th.

Kurt Busch had another strong outing to finish third, and Jeff Gordon was fourth. And Kahne was thrilled about the performance of the new Ford engine (the FR9), which he had in the No. 9 car Sunday.

"It was a night-and-day difference for what I had last week [with the old engine] in Pocono," Kahne said. "It was a nice improvement."

But no one had anything for Hamlin, which was a bit surprising, considering how bad the car was when the team unloaded Friday morning.

"We were what I considered horrible," crew chief Mike Ford said. "On Friday, we weren't a top-15 car. We probably made more adjustments this weekend than we have all season. I really didn't think we had a chance to win, but the adjustments were spot-on."

All's well that ends well. Even a little hard-to-see debris couldn't ruin it.

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 terry@blountspeak.com.