Monday, October 25, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Hamlin was destined to win this race in Martinsville

MARTINSVILLE -- You kept waiting for the caution. Some piece of a fender to fall off and clog a turn, an also-ran to hit the wall and stay there, a hot dog wrapper to fly onto the track and become just as famous as the grub it once held.

Something. Because that's usually what happens on Sundays at Martinsville Speedway. They run around for about 480 laps, then the yellow comes out and the race begins. There's a green-white-checkered finish, we all enjoy it, and then we forget everything that came before it.

Not this time.

After all, that might have cost Hamlin a victory. And he wasn't about to lose here.

Denny Hamlin seemed destined to win this race the moment he arrived in Henry County. "It's going to take a lot to beat us out there," he'd said, and nobody doubted it.

Vegas installed Hamlin as a 6-to-5 favorite in this race. Think about that for a second. Six-to-five! Those are Tiger-Woods-in-his-prime-at-The-Masters odds.

You just don't see that in racing. With 42 other drivers out there? With all the crumpled sheet metal we see at this place? This isn't just a guy battling pressure and a course; this is a man doing all that while also performing at the mercy of his machine, his rivals and his own crew.

And none of it mattered. Hamlin won this Sprint Cup event by 2.3 seconds.

The championship is next.

Hamlin's got to be the front-runner for the title now. Don't look at the standings -- four-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson still leads Hamlin by six points -- as much as the faces. Check out the confident, perky visage of Hamlin as he talks about his newfound patience and self-assurance. Look at the concern on Johnson's face when he contemplates next week's event at Talladega, which, as we all know, has just as much of a chance of foiling Hamlin as it does him.

But there's no pressure on Hamlin now. No matter what happens in the last four races, he's already proven how much he's matured and improved as a driver. Forget about his mastery at Martinsville; this victory was his seventh of the year, a series high. He's winning at a lot of places.

Johnson, meanwhile, must battle the specter of regression. His "regular season" performance was solid but not spectacular. And despite a strong start to the Chase, he hasn't been able to shake his rivals like in previous years. Kevin Harvick (62 points back) is still in this thing, too, even if Hamlin should slip.

Johnson didn't lead a lap at Martinsville in the spring or fall. That hasn't happened since 2005. Coincidentally, that's also the last year he did not win the title. And the year that a youngster from Virginia named Denny Hamlin made his Cup debut.

Hamlin's a different guy now. It showed Sunday, when a tire issue sent him backsliding immediately after the green flag dropped. He went from the pole to 10th in 30 laps.

"When things don't go right, it doesn't faze me nearly as much as it used to in the past," he said. "I definitely would have been raising Cain early in the race had it been a few years ago."

Instead, he's learned to bide his time and allow his team to make adjustments -- then strike.

Even after he did that on Sunday, taking the lead with 30 laps to go, he had to fear the seemingly inevitable caution as Mark Martin tore through the field.

But Denny's day of destiny stayed intact. Every driver who cut a tire found a way into the pits without bringing out the yellow. The fenders stayed in place. The hot dog wrappers never came.

The race stayed green.

After a lengthy celebration in Victory Lane, Hamlin walked into the interview room, sat down and pointed out towards reporters.

"Who said it was over?" he said, smiling. "Which one of you all?"

Yes, Denny, it is over.

You're going to be the 2010 champion.

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