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One slick victory for Denny Hamlin

6/19/2011 - NASCAR

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- A big, honking (some say cheating) oil pan?

Who needs it? Not Denny Hamlin, as it turns out.

Two days after NASCAR officials confiscated the "unapproved" oil pans on all three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, Hamlin used his old, gnarly oil pan and had a "take that" moment, winning for the first time this season.

He easily could have walked into the media center Sunday at Michigan and said, "We don't need to cheat to win." But he didn't.

"It didn't make me drive any differently," Hamlin said. "During the race, I never even thought about any of that stuff."

Teammate Kyle Busch wasn't too bad either, finishing third on Sunday without the fancy, new (bigger and heavier?) oil pan.

"We didn't get to run them," Busch said. "That was kind of disappointing for the engineering department, I'm sure. Some teams get away with it, and other teams, maybe not.

"We'll see what happens this week [with possible penalties], but our guys dealt with the circumstances and did a great job. You have to put it aside and not let it bother you."

Busch would know -- he's a guy who finds himself embroiled in controversy almost on a weekly basis.

But the entire JGR organization was the center of controversy this weekend with oil pans on the cars that NASCAR inspectors never had seen.

That won't fly in the watchful eyes of NASCAR officials, who must approve all new parts. NASCAR made the JGR cars switch to the old oil pans before the first practice Friday.

Hamlin's car passed the postrace inspection, in case you're wondering.

However, some type of penalty is coming this week, but probably just a financial slap on the wrist. Since the pans never were used on the track, Sprint Cup director John Darby said points penalties are unlikely.

The talk in the garage was the new oil pan could have given the JGR cars an aerodynamic boost and a weight advantage by how the pans were placed on the car.

Who knows, but Hamlin and Busch obviously had strong cars Sunday without the new equipment.

Hamlin's best day of the year came on one of Jimmie Johnson's worst days. An early spin caused a broken front sway bar and led to a 27th-place finish.

But Jimmie wasn't the angry Hendrick Motorsports driver at the end of the day. That was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 21st after teammate Mark Martin forced Earnhardt into the wall late in the race.

"Mark just came up and drove us into the fence," Earnhardt said in a postrace TV interview. "I don't know if his spotter couldn't see good or what, but they ran us flat into the wall and it blew out the right front tire eventually.

"I try to take care of people and not be careless. That was careless. That really pisses me off what happened out there."

I feel like the last six or seven weeks we've been as good as anyone. I felt this win was going to happen soon.

-- Denny Hamlin

Not exactly a team-building moment, which is what Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford called the victory for the No. 11 Toyota crew.

"It speaks volumes about these guys," Ford said. "We started the weekend off on a real down note, but everybody put it behind them and didn't let it affect what was about to happen. We turned a negative into a positive. This team usually comes out swinging when it's against the ropes."

Hamlin started the 2011 season with a lot of swinging and missing. He was 20th in the standings after seven races, a big surprise for the man who won eight races in 2010 and lost the Cup title to Jimmie Johnson in the final race.

The poor start brought rumors that a crew chief change was possible, which team president J.D. Gibbs quickly shot down as ridiculous.

After Sunday's race, Gibbs again took full responsibility for the oil-pan issue.

"We want to do things with integrity and do them the right way," Gibbs said. "If you can't, there's no sense doing this. It was a good lesson learned."

This season has been a learning experience for Hamlin, who calmly has said all along his team would work its way back into the top 10.

"I feel like the last six or seven weeks we've been as good as anyone," Hamlin said. "I felt this win was going to happen soon."

He took a difficult path to get there Sunday, running outside the top 10 most of the day. But he got out of the pits first after a late caution, almost hitting his front tire changer in the process.

Hamlin stayed out front for the final five laps, holding off a charging Matt Kenseth on the last lap.

"We just kept tightening the car up and finally hit it with about 70 laps to go," Hamlin said. "It feels good to get a win after sneaking up on everyone."

Sneaky. Interesting thought considering how the weekend started. But aside from a probable lightening of Joe Gibbs' wallet this week, everything turned out oil free.

Terry Blount is a senior writer 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 terry@blountspeak.com.