NASCAR & Auto Racing

No place like home

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Crew chief Mike Ford said that when things aren't going particularly well for his race team, driver Denny Hamlin sometimes makes it seem like "the world is painted dark."

On a cold and dreary day that looked like it could have come from that brush, Hamlin provided a silver lining by winning the Goody's 500 at Martinsville Speedway for his first Sprint Cup victory in the Chesterfield, Va., native's home state.

"Denny is a severe competitor," Ford said. "It's good to have someone in there who you know is performance-motivated."

It's much better, though, when things are going good.

"It's hard to be patient," said Hamlin, who now has four Cup victories after his first this year and his first driving a Toyota. "You get so close to winning and things don't work out in your favor. It's tough to maintain your confidence and self-esteem. You start thinking, 'How many times do we have to go through this?' "

Hamlin certainly experienced that two weeks ago at Bristol, Tenn. Leading on a green-white-checkered restart, his car had a problem with the fuel pick-up and did not go when he tried to clinch the victory.

"Bristol really frustrated us," Hamlin said. "You definitely start to have doubts."

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson had won eight of the past 10 Martinsville races, and the two led 225 laps Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 146 laps. All four Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets finished in the top seven, but it was Hamlin and the Joe Gibbs Racing team getting the win.

It came despite one decision on pit strategy, and largely because of another.

Hamlin was leading when a yellow flag waved on Lap 215. He said he didn't realize how few laps the leaders had run since a previous pit stop and figured most drivers would come in.

"I saw (Gordon) kind of make a move and when he pulled back up on the track I looked to see if anybody else was going to pit," Hamlin said. By the time he realized they were not, he'd crossed the commitment line and had to come in.

"I am the one who steered it into the pit," he said. "If that had cost us the race, it was going to be on me. Frankly. I didn't want to have to answer those questions at the end of the race, so I just went out there and won it."

It wasn't quite that easy.

Hamlin was in the middle of the pack after the pit stop and had to stay patient and work his way back into contention. He was flirting with the top five again when the time came for the final pit stop, and that's when he and Ford decided to take fuel only to gain some track position.

The move got Hamlin back on the track ahead of Gordon and Earnhardt Jr., and that proved pivotal. He was fifth on the restart, behind cars that had stayed on the track, but Hamlin moved up steadily and, on Lap 427, passed Jeff Burton for the lead.

Burton tried to battle back, but said rookie Michael McDowell, driving the No. 00 Toyota in his Cup debut, got in his way.

"That kid in the 00 car, he needs to learn some manners or he is going to get taught," said Burton, who finished third in the race but took the season points lead.

"He can choose to do it the way he wants to, the hard way or the easy way."

Johnson wound up fourth with Tony Stewart fifth, Earnhardt Jr. sixth and Casey Mears seventh. Kyle Busch, the points leader coming in, had to have a rear-end gear replaced and finished 38th.

It was a big win for Hamlin, who cut his racing teeth in the late model ranks and came to this track several times for its annual 300-lap event, a major event for those cars and teams. But he'd never won it.

"A lot of these people traveled from my hometown to come watch me race here," Hamlin said. "I felt like we've been very close here in the past."

Now, he's won the clock that serves as the Cup race winner's trophy from Martinsville races.

"I'll probably put it back home in Virginia ... that's where it belongs," Hamlin said. "Probably in the house I grew up in. I remember sitting there many times wondering if I would ever get one."

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