FORT WORTH, Texas – Denny Hamlin knows all about trading short-term pain for long-term gain, both on and off the track.
While he remains focused on the “big picture” this season – competing with four-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for the series championship – the short-term outlook is better than expected.
Less than three weeks removed from knee surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament and coming off a disappointing performance last weekend at Phoenix, Hamlin rebounded strongly with a win in Monday’s rain-delayed Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
The Virginia native also won the last Cup race run on a Monday, the rain-hampered Goody's 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in late March.
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Hamlin passed Jeff Burton with 12 of 334 laps remaining at Texas and held off a fast-approaching Johnson for the victory. The win is Hamlin’s second of the season and it’s the earliest in the year he has won two races in his four-plus seasons.
“We had one of those days where it showed how strong our race team is. Every little piece of it was very strong, from the pit crew to the car to the driver getting better through the course of the race, and our race car kept getting better,” Hamlin said.
“So, all those things put together showed right at the end.”
It’s a formula Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team plan to repeat throughout the year in hopes of a big payoff at season’s end. It’s also has been Hamlin’s approach to his recovery from surgery.
“I told everyone on media day (in January) that if we don’t set the world on fire for the first six months, it’s OK. Things are OK,” he said.
“We’re going to ease into our season and try to learn and work on some stuff for later in the year. Obviously, with no test sessions we’ve got to test during race weekend.
“I told everyone, you’ve got to stop looking at the short term. Look at us 15, 20 races in and then get a judgment of where we’re going to be.”
Hamlin’s ACL injury in January while playing in a pickup basketball game tossed an added unknown to the equation.
Originally he was going to postpone surgery until the end of the season, but when it appeared he might suffer more serious damage by waiting, Hamlin went ahead with the procedure on March 31. He began rehabilitation work almost immediately.
“I did this for September. I knew that if I did it now, come Chase time, if I’m lucky enough to be in one of those top-12 positions, it was going to make me more prepared to make a run for the championship at that time,” Hamlin said.
“Obviously, a win like today makes you feel a little bit better; gives you a little bit of confidence from here on out. We’re still a good month away from getting back where I was.”
While Hamlin ran well the entire race Monday, a nine-car wreck on Lap 318 shuffled the lineup of contenders.
Among those caught up in the accident were Jeff Gordon (who led the most laps Monday with 124) and Stewart (who led 74).
Jeff Burton, who took two tires on his last pit stop, remained the leader when the race returned to green on Lap 323.
Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch split Burton on the restart, with Hamlin taking the lead. Johnson, on fresher tires, moved into second in the final laps, but couldn’t catch Hamlin before the finish.
“I think we’ve got a lot of things working strongly for us. You’re not going to see the full strength of this team until later in the season,” said Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford.
“We are trying some things that are going to show inconsistency week to week.
“We’re benchmarking the Hendrick guys and we want to beat them at the end of the season. They may beat us the majority of the weeks up front, but we’ll take that.
“We want to beat them on the back side.”
That may be.
But things are still looking pretty good up front.