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