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For Hamlin, Fontana was a weekend to forget

by Dave Grayson
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

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Hamlin tangles with Greg Biffle in the Nationwide race on Saturday.  Biffle went on to take out Kasey Kahne in the Cup race on Sunday as well.
When last Sunday's NASCAR weekend, at the Auto Club Speedway, concluded there was one thing that driver Denny Hamlin was looking forward to the most: getting to the airport to catch a flight leaving California. In approximately 24 hours Hamlin had been involved in two crashes that seriously damaged his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. Making matters worse were the facts that he was a race winning candidate in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events.

Hamlin's California nightmare began Saturday afternoon when the NASCAR Nationwide Series lined up for the running of the Copart 300. Originally he was not entered in this event. However, Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch was extremely ill with the flu and the team planned on Hamlin to take over the ride so Busch could return to his motor home to rest up for the Sprint Cup race the following day.

The driver switch came following a lap 37 caution flag. The procedure was flawless. There was of course a loss of track position but the team kept Hamlin on the lead lap. Once back on the track the car began moving forward with Hamlin behind the wheel.

However the progress was unraveled with a long yellow flag stop for tires when Hamlin angled the nose of his car too close to the pit wall and didn't leave enough room for the jack man. The result was an additional loss of track position and Hamlin returned to the race in 25th.


But this was the highly potent #18 Joe Gibbs Toyota and everyone knew it wouldn't be in the back of the pack very long. Hamlin re entered the top five on lap 79 and by lap 107 was in the lead and checkers bound.

At least until lap 141 when hard racing with Greg Biffle found Hamlin getting loose and hitting the wall hard. He was nine laps away from winning the Copart 300 for his team mate. Because Kyle Busch started the race he will get the championship points. He came to California with a whopping 245 point lead over Carl Edwards. Due to Edwards' third place finish, compared the Hamlin's 31st, that points lead is now down to 155.

Hamlin's presence in Sunday's Sprint Cup race certainly started on a positive note. He started the Pepsi 500 on the pole position. From the initial green flag Hamlin's #11 FedEx Ground Toyota was a strong player and race leader.

But, for the second day in a row, the best laid plans of Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing unraveled on lap 190 when contact with Juan Pablo Montoya sent Hamlin sliding across the front stretch grass and into the front edge of the pit wall. The damage was massive to the car and another would be winning effort was over. The result was a 37th place finish and a major hit in his Chase For The Championship hopes.

But you've got to give credit where credit is due to this driver. He "manned" up and took responsibility for what happened on the track. In a post incident interview Hamlin said "I just made a rookie mistake. I thought I was clear of the 42, (Montoya), and he was getting a run. I think the 48, (Jimmie Johnson), was pushing him and just came right across his nose. I thought I was clear and just misjudged it. I've got to apologize to my team. They deserve better than that, they got me out front. It was just a bad mistake."

After a weekend like that one can't help but wonder how Hamlin fared on the official speed charts en route to any airport that had a flight leaving California.

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