The most difficult and most valiant thing Denny Hamlin did Sunday came after he climbed from his #11 Toyota.

Not that anything he did was easy.

Hamlin had just spent 500 laps in his Joe Gibbs Racing Camry, most of them leading the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

At 0.526 miles, Martinsville is Cup racing's shortest track. The flat, narrow, paper-clip-shaped speedway prides itself on the action it produces. Contact between racecars is routine.

After powering past Jeff Gordon for the lead on lap 156, Hamlin stayed there. All told, he led 296 laps. Jimmie Johnson beat him out of the pits for a restart on lap 434. Hamlin countered with a hold-your-breath pass for the lead on the next restart, on lap 456.

Hamlin's day went south, however, when Johnson dived underneath his JGR Toyota entering turn three on lap 485. Hamlin said he was committed to the low line at that point and forced Johnson lower. Johnson's Chevrolet bounced off the curbing at the inside of the turn and slid into Hamlin's car.

Johnson regained control, powered off the corner in the lead, and Hamlin followed in the second position. That's how the race ended 15 laps later.

Whether justified, most drivers on the short end of the outcome would have been fighting mad after an incident like that. Many drivers might have considered Johnson's move an act of aggression, worthy of a physical confrontation, or - short of that - a few choice, salty phrases.

Hamlin was close enough to feel the flutter of the chequered flag, only to have victory ripped away. To compound the disappointment, the second-place finish continued a drought that is now a year long. His last victory in the series came at Martinsville on March 30, 2008.

Hamlin is hungry, both for success and recognition. Before the season started, he told reporters he didn't want to be the most glaring example of a driver who hasn't lived up to his potential. In his fourth full season of Cup races, Hamlin already feels he has given away too many races and has fallen short in others because of circumstances beyond his control.

After the race, however, Hamlin, 28, resisted the urge to blame Johnson and addressed the incident with refreshing maturity and honesty.

"I know I would do the same thing," he said. "Nobody can sit here and tell me they wouldn't do the same thing that he did. ...

"My hunger is still the same, for sure. I want to win races, but I can't help being in the position I was in. I ran as hard as I could. He was on my bumper. He was in position to move me out of the way, and he did. I would have done the same thing. ...

"As a fan, as a racecar fan, I like going to short tracks. I like seeing guys move each other out of the way (in) the last few laps for a win. It's just part of it. I think that's what makes our sport as good as it is."

If karma is at work in the racing universe, it won't be long before Hamlin wins his next race. In the interim, if the roles are reversed at another short track on the Cup circuit - Richmond in May, perhaps - Johnson knows he'd better watch his back.

In racing, there are limits to gentlemanly behaviour - and there should be.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News