Commentary

Hamlin is owed one after deflating finish at Richmond

Did Denny Hamlin knowingly sabotage Junior's chances at Richmond by staying on the track with a flat tire? Not likely, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: May 7, 2008, 1:42 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Sometimes you have to wonder what the lesson is, why you were faced with that specific setback, obstacle, deflation, frustration, at that particular moment.

It's impossible to quantify how something can progress so perfectly, and ultimately be everything you ever dreamed of, only to have the excitement tempered by one variable that is out of your control.

Hey Marty,

Denny Hamlin

Hamlin

I'm sure that your inbox is filled with mail from irate Junior fans about how he was robbed of a win on Saturday night at Richmond, and how Kyle Busch is the devil. But I'd like to look at a different spin on this. I've been a Hendrick fan for six years now, and since Junior has joined the team, I feel I need to defend him too.

What do you think of the stunt Hamlin pulled by stopping on the track when his tire went down, thereby bringing out the caution and giving his teammate [the 18] a chance to catch up with Junior? NASCAR parked him for two laps, so they obviously realized what he was doing. But how about something more serious, like fining the guy for that?

Everyone is focusing on the racing between the 18 and 88, which resulted in Junior spinning out. But how about what really happened to change the outcome of the race? The credit for Junior's non-win should go solely to Denny Hamlin, because I think that without that caution, the No. 88 team would have been in Victory Lane celebrating.

-- Mitzie in Oshawa, Ontario

It seemed that way in the moment, Mitzie, and I agree that Hamlin's decision cost Earnhardt the win. But races aren't run on paper, and it's impossible to know what his thought process was at the time.

I know this -- he wasn't thinking about Junior.

Here he'd led the entire race from the pole on his home track in front of his friends and family, and a damned flat tire stole his dream.

Junior's fortunes were the last thing on his mind.

Here's how he described it Monday at Sprint Cup testing in Charlotte:

"I was trying to get to pit road and the problem was if I ran any kind of speed around the racetrack I was going to drag the sway bar arm off," Hamlin said. "It went in Turn 3, and that's when I totally lost the entire tire.

"So, I stopped trying to be able to turn it down onto pit road, but I had already crossed over the wall. I didn't want to risk tearing up the car to where we couldn't finish the race. So, I knew I had to stop or else I was going to jeopardize us even finishing the race.

"It was a fine line there. We had to stop or else we were going to get a DNF. Because the way our sway bar arms, the way they are designed, they just can't stay on that racetrack for long and we were already dragging it as soon as the tire started going down. Just one of those deals, I guess."

Some folks questioned whether Hamlin's choice was a blatant attempt to benefit Busch, Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing. He addressed that Monday, too.

"I didn't even know where Kyle [Busch] was out on the racetrack," Hamlin said. "For all I know, he was leading the race."

Hamlin will internalize this setback. It will eat at him. He's not one to accept adversity and move on. I understand that demon.

"Everyone knows, that's close to me ... I don't like to be consoled," Hamlin said. "I don't want to hear it -- just don't talk to me. So, it was quiet, for 24 hours it was very quiet for anyone who was around me.

"I think they knew I didn't want to hear about it. Maybe, through the course of my career -- you always hear stories about people winning -- you'll get that one back in a race that you probably didn't deserve to win anyway later on in your career. Will I get it at Richmond? What are the chances of that? I don't know."

It'll come back around, no question. Karma has a way of sorting these things out.

Marty,

Denny Hamlin had one of the most dominant cars ever Saturday at Richmond. That made me wonder if anyone ever led every lap in a race?

-- Maria Santana, Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Yep. It has happened 92 times in NASCAR history, Maria. It happened a lot in the old days -- Richard Petty did it several times. But in the modern era, which began in 1972, it has happened just three times -- twice by Cale Yarborough and once by Jeff Burton.

Yarborough did it at Bristol in 1973 and at Nashville in 1978. Burton's feat happened on Sept. 17, 2000, at New Hampshire, after NASCAR installed restrictor plates on the engines of the cars that day following the deaths of Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty Loudon.

Hey Marty,

What do NASCAR teams do to adjust for elevation? Certainly teams have different engine packages for Bristol in comparison to Daytona. Much like an airplane that climbs higher in elevation it makes adjustments in the amount of fuel it uses as air gets thinner.

What kind of changes does a team make to adjust for this and how do they test this variable when all of their engine dyno testing is done in N.C.?

-- Jamie, Christiansburg, Va.

Way over my head, Jamie, so I asked Jeff Andrews, head engine builder at Hendrick Motorsports, for insight. Andrews tells me there are adjustments that teams are able to control when tuning engines for specific altitudes. The first is ignition timing, and the second is the jetting in the carburetor, which alters the air/fuel mixture depending on the altitude in which the track sits.

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As we climb higher in altitude, the trend would be to go to a jet that is smaller in size, thereby reducing the fuel flow to the engine. Higher altitudes result in "thinner" air, so in order to keep the air/fuel ratio at an optimum for performance some fuel must be taken away from the engine.

Hendrick teams have weather stations on their transporters at the track that send an update every 15 minutes to a pager that each one of the engine tuners wears. Information sent to the pager includes, temperatures, both wet and dry bulb, barometric pressure, vapor pressure, adjusted altitude, density altitude and humidity.

Taking all these readings into account helps them make adjustments during the race weekend to ensure that engines are running and operating at the optimum performance level based on the air quality conditions at a given racetrack.

As for running engines at the shop in Charlotte, all of the air used in dynamometer cells and consumed by the engine is conditioned. There are two large volume -- in the 3000 CFM range each -- air conditioners that feed the dynamometer cells to ensure that the air the engines are taking in is as consistent as it came be from the middle of December, when it is 30 degrees and 15 percent humidity outside, compared to August when it is 95 degrees outside and 80 percent humidity.

No matter the time of year, Hendrick engines are running on air that is 70 degrees with 50 percent humidity. With this type of conditioned air, they have the ability to alter the conditions on any given day in Charlotte, and in our dynamometer cells, to predict an environment they might face at an upcoming event. That then allows them to make changes to the engine to optimize power before we ever get to the race track.

This just in: Jeff Andrews is smarter than me.

Marty,

In your article you say, "There's substantial room for growth in the sport." Why does the sport need to grow? It has already grown too big up to this point. You also say in the article that Haas has a $40 million wind tunnel. When you have that kind of money being thrown around and still can't keep up, something is wrong.

The sport was intended to let the best drivers compete against the best. (And by best drivers, I mean guys that know how to work on a race car. Not the Cole Trickles out there who don't know what wedge is or what the inside of an engine looks like.) But I don't think that's what we are seeing. We are seeing the best drivers with rich dad's compete against each other.

Just go to any local short track and there will be a least two or three 14- to 16-year-olds with a $75,000 late model that Dad paid for (and the kids never have grease under their nails). The best driver in the world is probably somewhere in eastern North Carolina right now, plowing a field to plant corn.

Now don't get me wrong, I think it's great that drivers come from all over the world, I want to see the best. But how many can afford a $40 million wind tunnel that still doesn't give them a good car to race?

Let me know your thoughts on this and what you think the sport could do to keep more than just five teams that can afford to race against each other. (Roush, Hendricks, Gibbs, RCR and maybe DEI). Go Morgan Shepherd (who had a great run at Dega.)

-- Cody, Roanoke, Va.

I never said the sport needed to grow, Cody. I said there's massive room for growth. Growth is a fine line for NASCAR, because they don't want to get stagnant, but don't want to venture too far away from the proven business model, either. Success for NASCAR is about one key element: on-track competition. If cars are fighting like hell to win on the track, the rest will take care of itself.

The sport is currently rather healthy, despite the concern that only a handful of owners have any shot at victory. That's where this thing is going, and it's scary. Right now there is no remedy. The Car of Tomorrow made the rich richer. NASCAR's hope is that down the line the COT will reduce cost and tighten the field. At this point I don't see it happening.

NASCAR is a free enterprise domain, and competition is open to anyone with enough money to start a team (though the top-35 rule makes it very difficult for start-up teams to establish themselves.)

And I don't disagree about youngsters. Many times opportunity does come down to money -- be it family cash or an in-pocket sponsor. You're probably right. The best stock car driver in the country probably is anonymous. Hamlin's story speaks well to that.

He's an anomaly. The only reason he had the opportunity to be ticked off Saturday night was because his parents once mortgaged their house to keep him in a Late Model stock car. They also sold off family cars. And when the money ran out, a competing owner paid for Hamlin to race, said he didn't want to win the championship unless he was beating the best. Hamlin was the best.

Had J.D. Gibbs not made the call when he did, Hamlin's racing career easily could have ended.

Marty,

Kyle Busch is the biggest hypocrite on the racetrack. He gets bumped by Steven Wallace on Friday but still kept his position at the end of the race and then feels the need to confront Wallace about it.

He wrecks Dale Jr. and then complains that he came up too him to confront him. It just seems that he does what he wants but when it happens to him he gets mad, any thoughts?

Luke Pettit, Albany, Ga.

NASCAR doesn't want to hear this, but If Steven Wallace keeps showing spunk like that he'll gain fans quicker than a house cat runs away from a water hose.

Marty,

We all know that Michael Waltrip got his first Cup win in the non-points All-Star race. So why does Michael need to win the Open or be voted in to race in the main event now?

-- Scott, hometown unknown

Because Waltrip's victory in the All-Star race is more than 10 years old, Scott. Waltrip won The Winston in 1996 and only previous winners from the past decade are automatically eligible.

Same goes for Cup Series champions. Those who've won one of the past 10 championships are automatically in the show for that year's race. That's how Bobby Labonte (2000) and Dale Jarrett (1999) are eligible this year.

That's my time. I have to go measure the barometric pressure in my engine.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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