Having said on Friday that he expected to win the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway, it turned out that Denny Hamlin was right, but not without a struggle - and not without a heavy heart.
Hamlin charged to the front from the sixth position with 13th laps left in Monday's rain-postponed race and ended a 50-race drought in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. However, after beating Juan Pablo Montoya to the chequered flag by 0.869 seconds, Hamlin wept in victory lane, overcome with emotion in the aftermath of the recent deaths of his grandmother, Thelma Clark, and the mother of tyre specialist Patrick Mullen at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“We've come close in a lot of races this year and come up short,” Hamlin, who led a race-high 91 laps, said afterwards, “We definitely had some angels with us today, as Patrick's mom passed away a couple weeks ago and my grandmother a few days ago.
“I was definitely driving aggressive out there, trying to do everything I could to get a win for them. It's emotional. We had a dominant car with two heavy souls in there today. I said, in my mind, that I wasn't going to settle for anything less than a win. With every corner I went in, that was 120 per cent.”
With the strongest car in the field car at the triangular 2.5-mile track, Hamlin passed Clint Bowyer for the lead coming off turn one on lap 191 of 200 and stayed in front the rest of the way. Montoya slipped past Bowyer for the second spot on lap 192, while Sam Hornish Jr, Kasey Kahne. Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart completed the top ten.
Starting from the rear after going to a back-up car - the result of a wreck in Saturday's practice - Stewart rallied to salvage his ninth straight top-ten finish, but saw his string of top fives end at five. Nevertheless, the Cup points leader expanded his advantage in the standings to 197 over second-place Jimmie Johnson, who bounced back from a succession of problems to finish 13th.
Second place was also a tonic for Montoya, who had a dominant run the previous week at Indianapolis squelched by a pit-road speeding penalty. Good fortune in the pits helped the Colombian at Pocono, when Robby Gordon and David Stremme crashed in turn two moments after he and Hornish had made their final stops on lap 165.
When the rest of the contenders stopped under caution on two laps later, Montoya and Hornish stayed out, along with Bowyer and Scott Speed, who both had pitted on lap 158.
“Restarts made it interesting,” the Earnhardt-Ganassi driver admitted, “I told [the team] 'I think we have a car that can win the race' and I think the biggest thing was where the #11 was going to be. I thought I had a car fast enough to hold him off, but I got hit in the last restart, and he passed me.
“I don't know.... Ifs and buts out, my goal is making the Chase. That's the bigger picture. If I make the Chase, they won't remember this guy won the race, this one didn't. The #18 [of 16th-placed Kyle Busch
] won three races this year.… you know what I mean? They won't be talking that he won three races [if he doesn't make the Chase].”
Busch gained a position to 13th in the standings at the expense of David Reutimann, who ran 29th after a bump from Hamlin sent him spinning down the frontstretch on lap 175, but still trails Greg Biffle by 101 points with five races left before the field for the Chase is set at Richmond. Biffle finished 15th on Monday, while Reutimann's disappointing result saw him drop to 16th in the points.
by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service