Denny Hamlin had been mighty early in the Nationwide Series race the previous day at Phoenix International Raceway, only to fade away as the afternoon wore on. But he would make no such mistakes when it came to Sunday afternoon's Subway Fresh Fit 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship race.

For one thing Hamlin wasn't in the position of being able to dominate from the start of Sunday's second Cup race of the season. Rather than the pole position he had enjoyed on Saturday, he was starting back in 13th place. It was Mark Martin on the pole alongside Tony Stewart for the green flag, but the veteran racer lost grip through the turn and promptly dropped back to eighth place on lap 2.

Stewart had nine laps in front before Jimmie Johnson took over, and then the first caution came out on lap 16 when Clint Bowyer's car blew a tyre. Several of the leaders opted to take the opportunity to pit, including Johnson, Stewart and Martin, leaving Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne in charge for the restart. Unfortunately Kahne was caught out on the high line and slapped into the wall at turn 4 when the field got back up to speed, and Bowyer also made contact with the wall in the same place three laps later with more tyre problems; both cars were able to continue and there was no caution, but Bowyer and Kahne were both now off the lead lap.

Harvick led to the next caution on lap 59 for debris which was nicely timed for the next round of pit stops. Just as had been the case on Saturday, Harvick found that pit stops were not his strong suit at Phoenix and dropped behind Johnson, Kurt Busch and Hamlin for the restart. That put Harvick alongside his 2011 nemesis Kyle Busch for the restart, but Busch simply blasted away and through the field, slotting into second position behind a dominant Jimmie Johnson during the next stint.

Lap 110 saw a spin for Casey Mears in turns 1 and 2: "We just lost the brakes," he explained. "They were getting too hot and we kept backing it up trying to ease off of them but we ended up going to the floor right there going into one. I don't know why they are getting so hot."

This time Harvick had a great stop that put him on the front row - alongside Kyle Busch again. The two had a fierce side-by-side battle for the lead at the restart before Busch finally managed to power away while Harvick focussed on maintaining his second position from Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Brad Keselowski.

The next caution was on lap 132 when Paul Menard crashed after tagging the rear of AJ Allmendinger's car coming into turn 4. Jamie McMurray also got caught up in the m?l?e: "Maybe the #22 car and Paul had to check-up and I already had a run on him," said McMurray later. "I didn't see the car in front of him hit, so I got tangled up there."

McMurray was able to continue in the race but subsequently retired with engine problems before the finish. "The motor blew up again. I don't know what happened there. It started missing and started smoking and just quit running," he explained. "Tough day."

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick led at the restart, but Harvick again found the outside line a slippery character to get to grips with and fell back. Just 25 laps later, however, he was fully back on it and there was a fierce side-by-side battle between the two old enemies for the lead that was the fight of the afternoon, finally decided when Busch slid up the track in turn 1 on lap 169 and handed the lead to Harvick. Busch also picked up a vibration that needed a check on pit road, and while he was able to continue it was enough to stop him from continuing to figure in the afternoon's battle for the win.

Harvick continued in front after a round of green flag pit stops but then lost the lead during a quick second visit to pit road under a brief debris caution to Martin Truex Jr., who was trying a different fuel strategy. With the race looking set to come down to fuel conservation - and virtually everybody still on the wrong side of the figures to make it all the way home on their current tank of fuel - Truex Jr. took the opportunity to pit on lap 247 when David Reutimann's car blew an engine and brought out the sixth of the afternoon's seven cautions.

Tony Stewart had already been playing the fuel game, and was using the old trick of turning off the engine as much as possible and coasting around behind the safety car during the caution, but the tactic ended up biting him: when he tried to restart his car, he got nothing. he car coasted to a dead halt and had to be pushed back to pit road by a safety vehicle to have the car re-fired, costing him two laps and ruining any chance he had of a late run to the win.

"I just shut the car off like we did at Daytona and turned it back on, and it never re-fired," said Stewart, a previous race winner at Phoenix back in November 1999. "That's all I can tell you. I don't know why it didn't re-fire. I honestly don't know. It's not really my department. I just turned the switch back on, and it never re-fired. I don't know why that was, but it definitely cost us a good day."

The race had barely got underway again when Ryan Newman got tipped into a spin in turn 4 after contact from Carl Edwards. "I'm 99 percent sure Carl Edwards didn't do that on purpose," he said. "I don't consider that a deliberate move by any means."

But that didn't mean that payback wasn't on the cards sometime down the road in 2012. "I trusted him, now he can't trust me because there is a lot to be had and lost, we lost a lot today. I don't know how much he lost, but that's not the point," he said. "We know plenty of times in this sport, what comes around goes around."

Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski led at the restart ahead of Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick, with Marcos Ambrose now in an impressive fifth place. The latest caution laps meant that most cars were expecting to make it to the end assuming there were no green-white-chequered period extending the distance, provided that they didn't have to burn through the fuel excessively in a fight to the flag.

It was Hamlin's first proper stint in the lead after a couple of single laps during pit stops or briefly at restarts. But just as he had demonstrated in Saturday's Nationwide race, Joe Gibbs Racing had delivered him a car with impressive pace in clear air, and now he had the opportunity to control the race from the front he seized it with both hands and jumped away at the restart. It turned out that Hamlin would not give up the top spot again for the remaining 59 laps of the race.

His biggest threat was of course Kevin Harvick, who quickly got past Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle to take up the chase in second place at the green flag. Harvick was able to close to within seven-tenths of a second on Hamlin, but he was being warned over the Richard Childress Racing team radio that he was just shy on fuel and needed to back off if he was to make the finish.

"When you come out of caution [and] they tell you you're nine laps short, you really don't think there's any possibility to make it," he said later. "But a couple cautions and a little bit of saving and a little bit tighter crunch on the numbers, we wound up about a lap short."

On the penultimate lap the #29 started gasping with fuel pressure problems; the push for the lead was over and done with, and now all Harvick could hope for was for enough left in the tank to get across the finish line ahead of Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson. The risk of trying to extend the fuel to the finish hadn't worked out, but Harvick was happy that he'd tried and gone for it.

"Those are the types of things you've got to do to take the chances," he said. "When you're close enough to at least coast around, they did a good job."

Also falling foul in the final laps were Jeff Burton (who developed an engine problem on lap 288) and Marcos Ambrose, set for a top three finish before his own engine blew half a dozen laps later.

"I don't really know what happened we broke something," said Burton. "I felt like a valve or valve spring of something, we don't really know just yet."

"We blew up," said Ambrose with typical Aussie succinctness, clearly unhappy with losing out on such a strong result at the last minute. "We are here trying to run for wins and run for championships and to trip over ourselves like that, it just isn't going to get it done."

Over in victory lane there were well-deserved celebrations for Denny Hamlin and the #11 team, which this season includes crew chief Darian Grubb who was in charge of Tony Stewart's championship-winning car in 2011 only to be let go by Stewart-Haas over the winter. Scoring a win so early in the season with his new team is unimpeachable proof of his talent: six of the last Cup race wins have gone to a Grubb-engineered car.

"I guess you could say it's a little bit of vindication ... I definitely came out of last year feeling like I still had something to prove," said Grubb. "The end of last year was bittersweet. I really loved working with those guys. The way it ended, I didn't really get to enjoy the championship like I really should have. So we're going to do our best this season to go out and win another one, this time with Denny and Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing."

The win meant the most to the driver himself, however. It was Hamlin's 18th race win in 225 Sprint Cup appearances, but moreover it was a return to something like the form that he'd enjoyed in 2010 when he finished runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the Cup championship. By contrast, 2011 had been a deep disappointment with only one win (at Michigan in June) all season.

"I don't know where this came from. I don't know how our car was as good as it was," said Hamlin. "We were solidly off in practice. We were off, but we kept getting it better and closer to being competitive. But I had no idea we were going to fire off like we did."

He definitely saw this early victory as a way of shaking off for once and for all the malaise that had hung over the team in 2011 after its championship near-miss the year before. "We just never got going," he admitted. "Maybe there was a hangover effect for the first half of the year ... But it didn't have anything to do with how bad I ran the last 10 races. We just didn't have it all together."

That's now all in the past. While it's early days yet, taking the lead of the Sprint Cup championship standings is just the tonic that Hamlin was after to show that he's a real contender for the title again in 2012.