Auto racing: Hamlin wins again on Monday, this one in Texas
AP Sports Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas — Monday, Monday for hobbling Denny Hamlin.
Three weeks after winning another rain-postponed race, and since having surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left knee, Hamlin gingerly climbed out of his car in Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday.
"I'm still not 100 percent by any means right now," Hamlin said. "I feel like I'm 60 at best."
That was still good enough to win at Texas.
Hamlin led the final 12 laps, the only time he was up front after starting the 334-lap race 29th. The final shootout came after a spectacular nine-car wreck took out polesitter Tony Stewart and dominating Jeff Gordon, and Hamlin held off points leader Jimmie Johnson at the end for his 10th career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory.
Two days after his Monday victory at Martinsville, Hamlin had the surgery on the knee he injured playing basketball in January.
The Easter weekend break provided some recovery time, but he was back in the car to run the entire race last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. He completed 376 laps at the mile track, finishing two laps back and bypassing a chance to get out of the cockpit during an extended stop for repairs on the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Hamlin was still hurting in Texas, the soreness irritated by the cool and wet weather that persisted during throughout the weekend.
"I did this for September. I knew that if I did it now, come Chase time, if I'm lucky enough to be in one of those top 12 positions, it was going to make me more prepared to make a run for the championship at that time," Hamlin said. "A win like today obviously makes you feel a little bit better. Gives you a little bit of confidence from here on out. "
Hamlin, 11th in points after two wins in three races, said he is "still a good month away from getting back where I was."
On the first lap after a restart with 18 laps left — following yellow-flag stops when Stewart was among the drivers who took only two tires and Gordon took four — they ended up three-wide with Gordon in the middle and Johnson on the inside coming out of Turn 4.
Stewart got loose in the pack and there was contact with Gordon, who had three-time Texas winner Carl Edwards coming up behind and trying to follow him. Then things spun out of control along the frontstretch, though Johnson escaped that wreck unscathed.
"Definitely my fault," Stewart said, taking the blame for the accident.
When Gordon got out of his mangled No. 24 Chevrolet, he walked directly to Stewart, who was only halfway out of the car, still sitting on the door frame. Stewart put his hand on Gordon's shoulder and they then walked away toward the pits talking to each other and trying to figure out what happened.
"Every second, every position counts on those restarts with that few of laps to go. I saw Tony backing up and then he got loose. I was trying not to get in to him. ... I got clipped in the right rear and turned me in the wall," Gordon said. "Gosh, what a race car we had. That is what I am bummed out the most about."
Gordon had led six times for a race-high 124 laps and was trying to get back to the front when the accident happened. He wound up 31st, one spot ahead of Stewart, who led 74 laps.
Once the track was cleaned up and the red flag was withdrawn after nearly 21 minutes, Jeff Burton was on the inside and Hamlin on the outside when the race restarted.
Burton, who took only two tires on the same stop as Stewart, didn't have enough left to challenge and slipped all the way to finish 11th.
Johnson sustained damage on the front left bumper when he got loose with 94 laps left and was hit by teammate Gordon, who is listed as the owner of the No. 48 car.
"It's going to happen in racing. Doesn't matter if it's teammates or not," Johnson said. "Jeff and I have been racing hard against each other for wins for a long time. We've had this issue in the past, so I really don't see it being a big deal."
That got Johnson out of sequence on pit stops when he had to make a stop to fix a flat tire, but the late cautions got him back in order and he got his fifth top-three finish of the season. He finished only 0.152 seconds behind Hamlin.
"Maybe one more lap I could have been alongside the 11 and had a victory," said Johnson, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion who has already won three times this season and led four times for 39 laps Monday.
Johnson increased his points leader over Matt Kenseth from 36 to 108.
Gordon was the defending race champion, having won for the first time at Texas last April to snap a 47-race winless streak that was the longest in his career. He has now gone 37 more races without a victory, and was coming off consecutive top-three finishes this season after leading on the final restart in overtime in both.
There were 29 lead changes, tying the record for the Cup series at the 1½-mile high-banked Texas track. A dozen drivers led laps, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., the Hendrick teammate of Gordon and Johnson, leading a race-high seven times for 46 laps.
Kyle Busch finished third, ahead of older brother Kurt, who won at Texas in November. Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt, Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10.
Kyle Busch, Harvick and Biffle completed all 334 laps — 501 miles — in the Cup race. They were then among 15 drivers who got back on the track about an hour later for the NASCAR Nationwide race, a 300-mile race.