AVONDALE, Ariz. – Denny Hamlin spent nearly two months of the offseason in the Scottsdale area, hoping to get away from racing for a while and reinvigorate himself for the 2012 season.
It seemed to do wonders, leading to a win at a place where he had one of the biggest disappointments of his career.
Hamlin pulled away when NASCAR’s best closer ran out of gas and then had to sweat out his own fuel mileage before completing a confidence-boosting win at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday.
It’s a little bit of satisfaction there, for sure, Hamlin said. It’s a bittersweet track.
It was, in fact, the site of one of his worst memories as a driver.
Hamlin seemed to have a comfortable lead over Jimmie Johnson in the penultimate race of the 2010 Chase when his title hopes were derailed by a fuel strategy that backfired. Forced to pit for fuel late in the race, he scrambled just to finish 19th while Johnson was fifth. He ended up losing the title the next week to Johnson, who earned his record fifth straight Sprint Cup championship.
Hamlin started 13th at PIR on Sunday and briefly led a couple of times before beating Kevin Harvick off the line after a caution with 59 laps left. Harvick, NASCAR’s best finisher, put a scare into him toward the end but ran out of gas on the final lap.
Hamlin was concerned about gas as well but had just enough for a celebratory burnout after his 18th career win and his first lead in the points since dejectedly leaving Phoenix in 2010.
When I come back here (and win), it puts 2011 to rest, Hamlin said. It’s a year I’d soon like to forget and now we can focus on winning a championship.
Harvick, who won three races at the finish last season, had Hamlin lined up for another last-second victory.
But as he closed in on the No. 11’s bumper, Harvick’s car turned off. His team had been concerned about having enough fuel to get to the end and just missed it, the No. 29 coasting over the line just ahead of Greg Biffle for second.
Those are the types of things you’ve got to do to take the chances and when you’re close enough to at least coast around, they did a good job, Harvick said.
Johnson led early in the race, but he had to pit twice during a caution because of a vibration and returned to the track in 25th.
Johnson clawed his way back toward the front to finish fourth, a nice result after he was docked 25 points for his car failing inspection the first day of Speedweeks and wrecked two laps into the Daytona 500.