Monday, March 5, 2012

Gibbs Garage: Denny Hamlin takes checkered flag at Phoenix for Joe Gibbs Racing

Denny Hamlin crosses the finish line first at PIR.
CREDIT: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If they made a television show about Denny Hamlin’s performance in the first two races of 2012, it might be called “Hot in Phoenix.” Under sunny skies in the desert heat, Hamlin drove to victory in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 for his 18th career Sprint Cup win. After starting 13th, the FedEx Toyota broke into the top 10 after the first caution and stayed there for most of the race, leading 61 of the 312 laps.

Phoenix might be Hamlin’s new home-away-from-home. After spending an off-season“retreat” in the area, the Virginia native became familiar enough to make recommendations on local hotels, golfing and other hot spots. Oddly, one Phoenix locale he couldn’t pinpoint was PIR’s Victory Lane. Early in the day when someone asked Hamlin where it was, he said, “I don’t know, but they can point me to it after the race.”

Hamlin found Victory Lane and celebrated with crew chief Darian Grubb, in only their second points race as a team. Fans on Twitter used the hashtag #redemption to describe the win. Ironically, Grubb’s last win was his final race as crew chief for 2011 Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, before he was let go from the No. 14 team. Grubb reflected after the race: “I guess you could say it is a little bit of vindication, but I really don’t think that way. I feel like I came into a very good situation. Mike Ford built one heck of a team here with the 11 car, and the FedEx Toyota is obviously really strong ...”

For Hamlin, perhaps this win will make up for historically average finishes and the strategy that probably cost him the 2010 championship. Hamlin dominated the second Phoenix race that year until a fuel miscalculation denied him the points from a top finish. Johnson finished well and closed the points gap, allowing him to clinch the championship at Homestead.

Darian Grubb celebrates in Victory Lane on Twitter
But this time around, Hamlin leaves Phoenix as the points leader. “It’s huge momentum,” he said. “We’ve never been in this position this early in the season.”

Hamlin and Grubb dedicated the win to team mechanic, Johnny Furino, who lost his father the day before the race. “Our thoughts and prayers are with him,” Hamlin said. “He told me before he left that only a trophy will do, and we’re gonna bring it back home for him.” 

Hamlin wasn’t the only star in the Phoenix desert for Joe Gibbs Racing. Joey Logano finished 10th, bringing home his second top-10 finish in two races. The Home Depot Toyota spent most of the race in the top 10-15, often gaining spots due to quick pit stops by the No. 20 crew. The wise call by crew chief Jason Ratcliff for a fuel stop on lap 248 ensured Logano would make it to the end. “Jason made just the right calls on the stops to make the car handle a little better and better each time and the pit crew was great on pit road,” Logano said.

A quirky, but minor issue for Logano was switching to a backup radio frequency, since a nearby golf course uses the same primary frequency as the No. 20 team. Logano is now eighth in the NSCS points standings.

Remembering his second-place finish at the spring Phoenix race last year, Kyle Busch was glad to head to a track where he believes driver skill and car handling matter. “You’ve got to have a good-turning car, and you’ve got to have a good car that can accelerate off of turn two and go fast down the backstretch,” he said. Busch spent much of the race in the top five and led multiple times, battling with Kevin Harvick around the halfway mark. The No. 18 M&M’s Ms. Brown Toyota ended up 6th, better than Busch’s average finish of 14th at Phoenix. “We were really fast and I thought we had a shot to win, but the 11 just got it when it mattered most.”

Overall, it was a terrific showing at PIR for Joe Gibbs Racing with all three drivers in the top 10!

Beth Bence Reinke writes "Gibbs Garage," Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup team recaps, for the 2012 season. Her Skirts and Scuffs column, “Faith on the Frontstretch,” explores the role of faith in motorsports. Beth is the author of Race Fans’Devotions to Go, a devotional book geared toward female NASCAR fans. Follow Beth on Twitter at @bbreinke or reach her at


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