Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Lugnut Report: Tires Doom Denny Hamlin's California Comeback


Welcome, welcome one and all to the first edition of The Lugnut Report on Skirts and Skuffs. Each week, Patti Rodisch and I will recap the weekend of two drivers from qualifying to the checkered flag.

For much of the off season, Denny Hamlin was the projected favorite to end four time champion Jimmie Johnson's hold on the Sprint Cup title. Doubt began to set in, however, when the eight time Sprint Cup Series race winner tore his anterior cruciate ligament playing basketball a little over a month beforethe 2010 season began.

"It's good," Hamlin said of his left knee during Speed Weeks. "But it's better in the car than it is now. But really, it's just not an issue at all. I thought it would be, but not here, definitely."

After finishing 17th in the Daytona 500, Hamlin came into Auto Club Speedway looking for momentum.

While it looked like he would find it, things didn't go the way the No. 11 FedEx Freight Totyota team would've liked.

After finishing Friday's practice 15th, Hamlin qualified 25th and ended Saturday's two practice sessions third and ninth. However, because the team changed an engine after Happy Hour, Hamlin took the green flag for the Auto Club 500 in dead last.

Early on, Hamlin managed to work his way up through the field despite fighting a loose racecar.

By lap 90, Hamlin cracked into the top 20, but was still fuming at his crew to fix his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

"We oughta be disappointed in our engine program," a frustrated Hamlin told his crew.

After the second caution of the day for Kasey Kahne's spin, and rain reportedly 90 minutes away, Hamlin came down pit road for yet more adjustments. With a trackbar adjustment he restarted in the mid-20s and once again began working his way through the pack.

Despite his team working on the car on the previous stop, their driver was still fuming inside the car.

"It's (explitive) hilarious, people are going right by me!" he yelled over the radio. Yet, he continued making strides on track.

On lap 141, when Juan Pablo Montoya lost an engine, Hamlin and his crew began discussing pit strategy with rain continuing to loom over the track.

The driver himself made the call to stay outside, rocketing the No. 11 Toyota to fourth behind Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish, Sr. His team cautioned him to save fuel.

Staying out proved to be a costly mistake; Hamlin was behind Newman on the lap 146 restart, when the No. 39 spun his tires and lost an engine. The cluster that followed sent Hamlin right back to where he started before hand to 18th.

Hamlin restarted the race on lap 153 in 23rd after pitting for four tires, fuel and yet more adjustments. He immediately began charging to the front, battling side by side with Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch.

Then the rains came, and strategy reared it's ugly head.

"It's raining pretty damn good," Hamlin said on lap 190, when he took the race lead. NASCAR put out the caution out two laps later. However, because the team stayed out earlier they were forced to make a pit stop for fuel, sending him back deep into the pack.

Hamlin would lose a tire shortly after the lap 195 restart, hitting pit road and losing a lap to the leaders.

"This is just the worst," a dejected driver said over the radio.

Hamlin would run with the lap down cars only to become the wave around on lap 223, after nemesis Brad Keselowski brought out the sixth caution of the day.

To add insult to injury, Hamlin made a pit stop for yet another flat tire--this time a right rear-- after he received the wave around, and was black flagged.

A difficult day ended with a 29th place finish, two laps behind the leader.

"I can't think of a worse day... 1 lugnut penalty 2 blown tires and a 10th place car at best" Hamlin tweeted after the race.

Next week, Hamlin and his fellow 42 competitors race into Las Vegas for the Shelby American live on FOX at 3 P.M. Eastern time.


Thanks to NASCAR on FOX, ESPN, Pilot Online and Scene Daily for the information and quotes used in this piece.

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