The second race of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season — the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway — served as a weekend of redemption for Denny Hamlin.
Fuel-strategy-gone-bad at PIR wrecked his championship hopes in 2010, when Hamlin's tank ran dry and he fell from first to 12th on the pylon. It was a blow from which Hamlin would not recover, as he lost the title to Jimmie Johnson the following week and a 2011 hangover that cost crew chief Mike Ford his job, ensued
So Hamlin took a different approach to the 2012 season by seeing a sports psychologist and getting out of the NASCAR hub that is Charlotte, N.C. Ironically, it was to the Phoenix area that Hamlin retreated, spending a relaxing offseason on the golf course and basketball courts for a warm winter away from all-things NASCAR.
And after a strong fourth-place showing in the Daytona 500, Hamlin and new crew chief Darian Grubb — who won the 2011 championship with Tony Stewart — put the series on high alert that their pairing may be a potent one. Hamlin conserved just enough gas in the waning laps at Phoenix on Sunday, outlasting Kevin Harvick to grab his first win of the 2012 season.
“This is as good as it can get for me,” Hamlin said. “I consider this my offseason second home. I’ve got a lot of friends and whatnot out here now, and so coming back to the track where essentially we did lose the championship in 2010 … it just feels so good to come out and be competitive again.
“We’ve been non-existent for 14 months, and now, here we come.”
Jimmie Johnson led 55 laps and was the dominant player through the event’s halfway point. However, a loose wheel dropped him deep in the field and he spent the rest of the afternoon methodically working his way through it. Instead, it was Hamlin and Harvick that battled for the win over the final 60 laps. When Harvick’s fuel tank ran dry with one-and-a-half laps remaining, Hamlin cruised to his 18th career Cup win.
Greg Biffle, who ran third in Daytona, Johnson and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
“I don’t know that I could get to him,” Harvick, who led a race-high 88 laps, said when asked if he could have gotten by Hamlin if not for the fuel issue. “Our cars were so evenly matched. He was a little bit better on the restarts than I was. If I could get out front on the restart and have enough room to slide my car around, then I could take off after that. But he was able to get out there and get in front of me.”
As the series stays out west for a trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Hamlin, Grubb and their Joe Gibbs Racing team look to be the early-season squad to beat — a surprising and scary notion considering they have all of two points-paying races together.
“We haven’t even gotten some things in our racecars that Darian wants to put in them,” Hamelin said. “The chemistry and all is still so new — Darian is still learning the system within JGR. There’s a lot of reasons why we’re going to be going forward even more in the next few weeks. So to start out a year like this with a fresh new relationship with him … it’s just a great feeling. I can’t really put it into words.”