When it Comes to NASCAR – Denny Hamlin is the ‘Name!’
Denny Hamlin. This is the name that everyone is hearing about this morning. This is the racer who took the lead on a restart and had to grin and bear it as he sat in his car a bit frightened, wondering whether he possessed enough fuel over the final laps in order to win the Sprint Cup at the Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday. He did, but just barely.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (which is often shortened to Sprint Cup) is the top racing series of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The series was actually known back in the 1940’s as the Strictly Stock Series and then the Grand National Series from 1950 to 1970. It was while leasing its rights to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company from 1971-2003, that it became known as the Winston Cup Series. As technology and ‘branding’ became even bigger, a deal was made with Sprint Nextel Corporation, making this the race everyone referred to as the NEXTEL Cup Series from 2004 to 2007). The 2006 merger between Sprint and NEXTEL resulted in the cup series being renamed the Sprint Cup, beginning in 2008. And one of the loveliest objects when it comes to this particular race is the silver trophy which is designed by the famous, Tiffany & Co.
For a brief overview (for you non-car-types) the drivers’ champion is determined by a point system – where points are given according to finishing placement and laps they led throughout the race. The season is divided into two segments. After the first 26 races, the 10 highest ranked drivers – plus the two drivers with the most race wins – are seeded, based on their total number of wins. They then compete in the last 10 races called, the “Chase for the Championship.”
The series holds significantly deep roots in the Southeastern part of the United States, with half of its 36-race season being held in that region. The Daytona 500, of course, is the most popular race and once hosted a television audience of more than sixteen million viewers across the nation.
When it comes to the Sprint Cup Series, the cars are the objects that are truly unique. The engines are powerful enough to reach speeds over 200 mph, but high weight mixed with a simple aerodynamic package makes for extremely treacherous handling on the track.
By 2009, the popularity of NASCAR, as well as the Sprint Cup, fell, and television ratings over the past ten years have been more or less stagnant. Long time and avid fans of racing say that it’s because they have abandoned the traditional appeal by moving the races into other venues outside of the Southeast.
But this weekend, even if the ratings were in the basement, it made no never-mind to Denny Hamlin. This was his second race with new crew chief, Darian Grubb. Hamlin has had bad experiences in the past with crews, but this was not that day. Yes, Denny was most likely sitting in that car remembering how it felt to come in second at the Sprint Cup when his car ran out of gas in 2010 – but not this time around. Even though he had to face his fears as he held off NASCAR’s best closer, Kevin Harvick, it turned out that he had just enough fuel in his tank to celebrate his 18th career win.
Kevin came in second while Greg Biffle finished third, and Jimmie Johnson bounced back from a horrific Daytona 500 in order to finish fourth, even though he had to deal with some serious wheel troubles midway through the race.
James Dennis Alan Hamlin – Denny to one and all – was born in Tampa but lived in Virginia for most of his childhood. Racing go-karts at the age of seven, Denny had racing in his blood. A lifetime of racing began and by 2004, he worked his way up to Late Models, signing a development contract with Joe Gibbs Racing. After running briefly in the Camping World Truck Series, Hamlin drove a full season in the NASCAR Busch Series in 2005, while running a few specific Nextel Cup races. After having what fans would call some seriously great finishes, Hamlin was given a full-time ride with Joe Gibbs Racing and has never looked back.
In four previous races, Denny had not finished any better than the 11th spot. And that horrific finish in 2010, where his car ran out of gas and actually cost him the chance at winning his first Sprint Cup championship ever, was still on his mind. Yet, he dominated this race, until making a very late pit stop for fuel. Denny wound up 19th after that stop, while Johnson moved to fifth. Instead of a 60-point lead over Johnson, Hamlin was only ahead by 15 after Phoenix and Johnson ended up snatching the title from him at Homestead the next week, his record-setting fifth.
Hamlin started out in the 13th spot and briefly led a few times before finally beating Harvick off the line after a caution was held on the track. Following a brief scare by Harvick snapping at his heels, Denny was able to not relive history as he cruised to the checkered flag just as his car ran out of gas.
Now, as we spoke about last week, none of the teams had much time to even prepare for the Sprint Cup, seeing as that Mother Nature really screwed up the Daytona 500 last week – making it so the drivers were all late getting into Phoenix. Horrific weather – a deluge of rain – pushed the beginning of the race to Monday night. Add to that Juan Pablo Montoya’s crash into a safety truck during a caution, which led to a two-hour delay at Daytona that included flames and a whole lot of bubbles, as crews attempted to clean the track with laundry detergent.
Adding to last week’s odd Daytona 500, was the fact that many drivers weren’t able to get home after the race because the airports in North Carolina were shut down due to the bad weather. If you don’t know, Matt Kenseth was the big winner after that amazingly weird weekend, holding off Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in order to capture his second Daytona 500 title.
But for this past weekend’s Sprint Cup there were no suds on the track – although it did get a whole heck-of-a-lot more slick as the race wore on. Seems that the Phoenix track was resurfaced after the 2011 spring race. The grip was just fine for the early practice session on Friday, but the track became really tough as the temperatures rose into the 80s. Drivers fought for traction and had a full day of sliding all over the place.
In the end, the ‘fuel gods’ were smiling down on Denny Hamlin this year – placing the stunning silver trophy in his hands as he raced past the checkered flags…on nothing but fumes!