0

NASCAR: Hamlin cruises to 5th win of season in Michigan

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Denny Hamlin, his No. 11 Toyota becoming a distant spec on the horizon to the rest of the field late in Sunday's NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway, heard the caution call come over the radio and tried not to roll his eyes.

He knows nobody wants to watch a driver lead by 10 seconds, as he was doing at the time. It makes for bad TV.

And even though Hamlin didn't see any debris on the track when the yellow flag flew, he didn't exactly panic when his massive advantage was wiped out.

"I understand this is show business," Hamlin said.

Besides, it turned out to be no big deal for NASCAR's latest showstopper.

Hamlin easily pulled away from Kasey Kahne on the restart with 14 laps remaining and rolled to his fifth victory of the season, dominating the 400-mile race with the same ease in which he's dominated the series over the past three months.

"I didn't like watching him drive away from me, but I wasn't surprised when he did," said Kahne. "I thought we had a really good car ... the 11 was just a touch better."

Kahne highlighted a resurgent day for Ford by finishing second, followed by pole-sitter Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson was sixth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seventh.

They all, however, were merely bystanders as Hamlin continued his hot streak that began with a victory in Martinsville in late March.

He led 123 laps and has won five of the past 10 races, and done it in all kinds of ways over all kinds of circuits. Short tracks. Intermediate ovals. Massive speedways. Shootouts. Blowouts. It doesn't seem to matter. Four months into the season he's already set a career high for victories and there's still 21 races to go.

"It seems like I used to go into every season thinking, 'We ought to get a couple wins, Martinsville, Pocono,"' Hamlin said. "Now it's just show up and, hey, we can win. That to me is just a feeling I don't think we've ever had before."

And unlike his exuberant celebration at Pocono, Hamlin kept his No. 11 Toyota in one piece. Hamlin put a damper on the victory party last week when he smacked the wall while doing a burnout.

This time, his car rolled into Victory Lane in pristine condition.

"There were specific instructions not to wreck," Hamlin said with a laugh.

Not exactly good news for the rest of the series, which finds itself scrambling to keep up. Hamlin's only hiccup came when he temporarily lost fuel pressure following a pit stop about midway through the race.

He promised his team he'd "get it back" and he was in the lead minutes later.

Though Hamlin remains third in points behind Kevin Harvick with 11 races to go before the Chase begins, the bonus points from his five victories would have him in first if the Chase started today.

Kahne, who says he saw the debris that brought out the late caution, had a brief glimmer of hope on the restart. It lasted all of three laps, or as long as it took for Hamlin to run out and disappear.

"He put on a good show," said Busch, who led 60 laps before Hamlin took over. "That team has been dominant. They are showing their strength."

Hamlin stressed winning is harder than he's made it look recently, but added he now knows how Johnson has felt during his long run atop the sport. Hamlin certainly put on a Johnson-esque show at the two-mile oval, and did it during a relatively quiet race that lacked some of the fireworks that have peppered the series of late.

A week after Joey Logano and Harvick created waves during a postrace dustup, there were no flare-ups in the Irish Hills. Logano, who raced without his father Tom in attendance after he was involved in the uproar, finished 10th while Harvick struggled with his car all day and wound up 19th.

The two found themselves running side-by-side for a short stretch early on, with Logano's spotter telling the 20-year-old to give Harvick room so he could make the pass. Logano went back by Harvick moments later.

"I was focused straight ahead all the time," Logano said. "It wasn't distracting. I do a good job on focusing out on all that stuff."

Kahne's performance highlighted a resurgent day for Ford. The manufacturer still hasn't won a race since last fall, but placed five drivers in the top 14. All five were using the new FR9 engine designed to put Ford back in the win column.

Kahne sang the engine's praises, saying it felt like he was driving on a level playing field for the first time in awhile.

"I didn't feel like we were at a disadvantage," he said.

Earnhardt's finish was his best since Bristol in early spring and though his winless streak stretched to 72 races, he remains upbeat.

"It was fun to drive," Earnhardt said. "We felt like we had a top 10 car and we were able to show it today."

Still, Hamlin's stroll to the checkered flag only highlighted the growing chasm between Joe Gibbs Racing and the rest of the teams. JGR has won seven of the past 10 races overall and seems to be a step ahead of everyone else when it comes to racing with the spoiler after NASCAR ditched the hated rear wing earlier this season.

Hamlin is hardly ready to say he's the driver to beat.

There's a long summer to get through, however, before the real season begins. He's not about to get ahead of himself. He watched Kyle Busch steamroll through the regular season in 2008 only to flame out in the playoffs.

Still, for a season that started with Hamlin running in the middle of the pack and included knee surgery after getting hurt while playing basketball, he's not complaining.

"It's just funny for me," he said. "It's like the more success we get, the hungrier it makes me to try to win again."