Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Denny's dash now lore at Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE -- They'll be talking about the finish for years at this place. Maybe decades.

Every time they line up for a green-white-checkered finish here, bringing the fans to their feet, we'll have a different perspective. See that guy in fourth place? Don't count him out.

Remember Denny Hamlin, Spring 2010?

And we will. Instantly.

Hamlin officially entered Martinsville Speedway lore Monday. Changed the way we think. Increased the possibilities.

Hamlin already qualified as a prominent figure at this track, a guy who sells a few more souvenirs than most at the midway haulers. He's quasi-local, a Chesterfield native with family sprinkled all over Virginia.

His relationship with Martinsville dates to his Late Model days. And even before this season, he'd enjoyed plenty of success at the .526-mile oval, including two Cup victories.

But what happened Monday? That cranks things up to a whole different level.

Hamlin accomplished the implausible. He launched himself right into the fray, showed a remarkable moment of patience in the eye of the storm, then emerged from the carnage as the winner of the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500.

If it's possible to be deserving and lucky at the same time, then that's what Hamlin was. His car was fantastic all afternoon. His strategy ... well, that's debatable.

But his determination to finish first or crash trying trumped all.

The memorable sequence started like that dream where you show up to school naked. That's what Hamlin looked like with fewer than 10 laps to go: Exposed. Silly. Destined to be the object of ridicule.

He pulled into the pits as the leader, and only one guy with a shot to win the race -- Kyle Busch -- followed him. Had Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford lost their minds? Trading eight spots on the track for four fresh tires?

At some places, that's a calculated risk worth taking. But at this track, where laps tick off the scoreboard in roughly 20 seconds apiece and passing is such a chore, that qualified as lunacy.

But Hamlin -- who figured the others would pit if he didn't, thereby putting him at risk anyway -- drove the final laps like few dare here. He went three-wide. He dove. He weaved.

By lap 499, he'd gotten up to fourth.

And that's when the luck arrived. Because that's where the story ends if the caution doesn't come out: Jeff Gordon's your winner, Hamlin your devastated challenger, foiled by pit strategy.

Then cosmic -- or commonwealth -- karma intervened. Busch hit the wall seconds before Gordon would have taken the white flag. The yellow flag waved instead.

Hamlin had his chance.

For all his aggression after the final restart, Hamlin sealed the victory with a modicum of patience. After Matt Kenseth, engaged with Gordon for the lead, slid toward the inside, Hamlin alertly slowed his car and waited. He knew Kenseth's old tires would force that car to slide up the track. Once it did -- taking Gordon's with it -- Hamlin pounced.

It was a fitting end to an entertaining day set beneath threatening skies. If one of the best measures of the quality of a race is the number of people who go home frustrated, this event was fantastic. So many drivers -- Gordon, Busch, Jeff Burton, Ryan Newman -- legitimately could picture themselves taking the checkered flag at some point.

The race also was notable for one driver who wasn't a factor. Martinsville wizard Jimmie Johnson had a middling car all day and had to labor to finish ninth.

Tires went down, a points lead dissolved.

All the while, Hamlin sliced his way toward the front, overcoming early obstacles to give himself a chance.

His permanent place among our Martinsville memories awaited.

Weather Journal

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