'Lady in Black' no match for Hamlin
DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Welcome back, "Lady in Black."
You're not as gnarly as you were before they repaved you in 2007, but you're getting back some of your bite and getting back into the minds of the world's best drivers who thought they were getting a handle on you.
Denny Hamlin aside, that is.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver turned you into his own little playground this weekend, first winning Friday's Nationwide Series race and then Saturday night's Sprint Cup event to complete the first sweep of his career on arguably NASCAR's toughest track.
By manhandling you, Hamlin joined an elite list of Darlington Raceway winners that include the top names in the history of the sport. He also elevated himself -- if he hadn't already -- as the most serious threat to dethrone four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Few non-champions win at Darlington, and perhaps a first-ever Cup win at the 1.366-mile track will be Hamlin's catalyst to that title.
"I looked at this trophy in Victory Lane," Hamlin said after completing the first Darlington sweep since Mark Martin in 1993. "The faces on it are unbelievable. Mine is going to stick out like a sore thumb, I can tell you.
"Hopefully, one day it's a face that fits in with those guys."
Some might say it already does.
The win was Hamlin's third in the past six Cup races, including two of the last four since undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that many thought would set back his season.
If Johnson is Superman, then the driver of the No. 11 Toyota has to be the Bionic Man.
He stayed in the car for all 376 laps at Phoenix less than two weeks after having surgery. He won the next week at Texas, finished fourth at Talladega and 11th with an ill-handling car at Richmond.
And he did it in such a calm way while much of the field was stringing together expletives in ways seldom if ever heard.
Sure, he got a little help. Jeff Burton ran over an air hose during a late pit stop and received a stop-and-go penalty that cost him any chance. Gordon made a mistake coming onto pit road and then was caught there when a caution came out to spoil his shot at an eighth Darlington victory.
But even Burton and Gordon complained at certain times about how their cars would go away. At one point Gordon gave crew chief Steve Letarte a history lesson as he explained why his car was sliding up near the wall.
"That's why this place is called 'Too Tough to Tame,' 'The Lady in Black,' " said Gordon, who finished fourth.
Hamlin never complained. When crew chief Mike Ford called for four tires he went with it knowing it would cost him track position while many others took two. He showed the patience that it takes to win at Darlington, the patience that makes most winners here into champions.
"The excitement level, the heart rate is not nearly as high as it used to be," Hamlin said. " I would just have a bad pit stop or something. I would instantly peak way high. It affected me on the track, and then I'd get caught up in a wreck.
"I feel as well in control of my destiny throughout the day, even when things go bad. I learned you don't have to win them in the first half. You just have to be somewhere around that top five with a hundred to go. You don't need a lot of panic when you're not in the lead the whole way."
There is a confidence in Hamlin that we came to expect out of Pearson and Earnhardt when they came to Darlington when it was a track that ate up tires faster than any on the circuit, when it wore drivers down to the point they made mistakes.
We saw a lot of that on this night, more than any time since the repaving made tire wear and handling almost a non-issue.
It's taken me a while to understand how these races play out, what it takes. Now I feel like I have a better understanding of that. I think it's gonna continue to go on a roll the way it is.” -- Denny Hamlin
If you want to know how frustrating Darlington was on Saturday night you should have listened to the conversations between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before their day ended in a wreck on Lap 178.
"I don't think I need to say this, but we really need to stop beating the car up," Knaus told Johnson early after he slapped the wall.
Later Knaus said, "If you hit something again, [expletive] wreck it so we can quit."
Johnson had just gotten the Lucky Dog to get back on the lead lap when AJ Allmendinger, who lost his brakes, spun out and turned the No. 48 into a mangled mess.
Johnson finished 36th with his third DNF after winning three of the first five races.
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart had a similar experience around Lap 200 when he spun out and shouted, "Mother [expletive] Jesus Christ."
When crew chief Darian Grubb told him to calm down, Stewart sarcastically said, "Imagine this, I'm loose."
Not long after that, then-leader Kyle Busch nipped the fence while pulling away.
"I can't believe it," Busch said. "I just talked to myself about how we've got to keep it off the fence and do our own deal. Unbelievable. I don't know why, but when I'm out front I get freer."
We should have known this was coming on Friday when more than 20 drivers hit the wall -- including Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his primary and backup cars -- and eight went to backups.
Earnhardt was so frustrated with a car that finished 18th that at one point he asked crew chief Lance McGrew if it was 4 a.m., feeling like he'd been in the car forever.
Hamlin never lost his cool. He and Ford showed the composure we have come to expect from Johnson and Knaus.
And they showed it at a place that can test your mental toughness more than any other.
Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs wasn't surprised. He knew his driver had what it took to handle Darlington after an eighth-place finish here in his 2004 Nationwide Series debut and a win in 2006.
If there was any lingering doubt, Hamlin's refusal to give into pain at Phoenix last month made it disappear.
"He went up a few notches in my eyes, just in the mental toughness," Gibbs said.
Mental toughness is what it takes to beat the Lady, especially since she is graying and getting back to the way she was.
The Lady is back.
To everybody except Hamlin, that is.
"I felt like I missed out on a lot of wins the first probably two or three years of my career," Hamlin said. "Probably 10 of them I should not have lost had I had the mind-set I have right now, what it takes to win.
"It's taken me a while to understand how these races play out, what it takes. Now I feel like I have a better understanding of that. I think it's gonna continue to go on a roll the way it is."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.