AVONDALE, Ariz. – Denny Hamlin spent nearly two months of the offseason in the Scottsdale, Ariz., area, hoping to get away from racing for a while, reinvigorate himself for the 2012 season.
It seemed to do wonders, leading to a win at a place where he had one of the biggest disappointments of his career.
Hamlin pulled away when NASCAR’s best closer ran out of gas and then had to sweat out his own fuel mileage before completing a confidence-boosting win at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday.
“It’s a little bit of satisfaction there, for sure,” Hamlin said. “It’s a bittersweet track.”
It was, in fact, the site of one of his worst memories as a driver.
Hamlin seemed to have a comfortable lead over Jimmie Johnson in the penultimate race of the 2010 Chase when his title hopes were derailed by a fuel strategy that backfired. Forced to pit for fuel late in the race, he scrambled just to finish 19th while Johnson was fifth.
Hamlin left the desert dejected after his lead was trimmed to 15 points and ended up losing the title the next week to Johnson, who earned his record fifth straight Sprint Cup championship.
Hamlin then had a bit of a hangover to start the 2011 season and never really clicked, ending up ninth in the Sprint Cup standings.
That’s where his return to the desert comes in.
Trying to get away from the constant race chatter around the Charlotte, N.C., area, Hamlin rented a house in Paradise Valley for seven weeks during the offseason. He came back strong to start this season, finishing fourth at the Daytona 500 with new crew chief Darian Grubb after qualifying 31st.
Hamlin started 13th at PIR and briefly led a couple of times before beating Kevin Harvick off the line after a caution with 59 laps left. Harvick, NASCAR’s best finisher, put a scare into him toward the end, but ran out of gas on the final lap.
Hamlin was concerned about gas as well, but had just enough for a celebratory burnout after his 18th career win and his first lead in the points since dejectedly leaving Phoenix in 2010.
“When I come back here (and win), it puts 2011 to rest,” Hamlin said. “It’s a year I’d soon like to forget and now we can focus on winning a championship.”
Hamlin had to hold off NASCAR’s version of a closer to get it.
Harvick, who won three races at the finish last season, had Hamlin lined up for another last-second victory.
But as he closed in on the No. 11’s bumper, Harvick’s car turned off. His team had been concerned about having enough fuel to get to the end and just missed it, the No. 29 coasting over the line just ahead of Greg Biffle for second.
“Those are the types of things you’ve got to do to take the chances and when you’re close enough to at least coast around, they did a good job,” Harvick said.
Johnson did the best he could after his right rear wheel started shaking midway through the race.
The five-time Sprint Cup champion led early in the race, but had to pit twice during a caution because of a vibration and returned to the track in 25th.
Johnson clawed his way back toward the front to finish fourth, a nice result after he was docked 25 points for his car failing inspection the first day of Speedweeks and wrecked two laps into the Daytona 500.
“We’ll take it,” said Johnson, still 71 points behind Hamlin. “I’m not really satisfied. I really felt like we had a car to win the race with. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out there. We had a little hiccup early in the race, but we still rebounded back and got a strong finish.”
Johnson wasn’t the only one feeling a little pride.
Grubb led Johnson to a victory in the 2006 Daytona 500 with crew chief Chad Knaus suspended and guided Tony Stewart to his third Sprint Cup title last year. But just a week after winning the title, Grubb was fired by Stewart, who later hired Steve Addington away from Penske Racing to serve as his crew chief.
Grubb landed with Joe Gibbs Racing and seems to have clicked right away with Hamlin.
“I guess you could say it’s a little bit of vindication, but I really don’t think that way, I just try to take the high road,” Grubb said. “I feel like I came into a very good situation and we’re building a heck of a team with the No. 11 car.”
With the sun shining and the temperature in the 80s, drivers fought for traction all day, wobbling and sliding.
Kasey Kahne slid into the wall early and Paul Menard did the same after A.J. Allmendinger got loose in front of him near the midpoint of the race. Ryan Newman, in a backup car because of a practice session crash, was knocked from sixth when Carl Edwards got loose with about 60 laps left and Brad Keselowski dropped back when he got a little squirrely a few laps later.
“It was definitely slick for sure,” said Kyle Busch, who finished sixth.
Not for Hamlin, allowing him to get a grip on a memory he wanted to erase.