He limped down pit road at Talladega Superspeedway, dragging his left leg along the asphalt as if he were lugging a 50-pound ball and chain behind him. As the late-afternoon shadows stretched across the imposing Alabama track, Denny Hamlin admitted what was clearly obvious: He was in pain. "Just got to deal with it and keep plugging away," Hamlin said moments after finishing fourth in the Aaron's 499 on Sunday. "But I'll tell you what: We're in a perfect place right now. We're right where we want to be."
Nine races into the 2010 Sprint Cup season, the top challenger to Jimmie Johnson's four-year reign clearly has emerged, even though he has trouble simply sliding into his number 11 Toyota Camry. On March 31, two days after Hamlin took the checkered flag at Martinsville, he underwent reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair an ACL he had torn in late January while playing pickup basketball. Ten days later, Hamlin was back behind the wheel at Phoenix. Piloting his car with essentially one foot—he experienced a shock of pain every time he tried to brake—Hamlin struggled to finish 30th. His once promising season looked lost.
"Denny wasn't himself at Phoenix," says Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief. "But what he's done since then is truly remarkable."
What he's done is this: He took the checkered flag at Texas in his next start, on April 19, and sped to a top five run at Talladega's 2.66-mile tri-oval on Sunday. In spite of his injury, Hamlin has scored more points (623) than any other driver since March 29, when NASCAR replaced the rear wing on its cars with the spoiler, which changed their aerodynamic and handling characteristics. For the first time since Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, began their title binge in 2006, a new driver-crew chief combination appears—at least right now—to have the upper hand. "We do know what we're up against," says Hamlin, alluding to Johnson's prowess in the 10 races that comprise NASCAR's postseason. "I promise you we'll be better in the Chase than we are right now."
Hamlin's confidence is rooted partially in Johnson's recent and uncharacteristic missteps on the track. At Texas he angered his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon by racing the four-time champion as aggressively as he would a rival from another team, and on Sunday Gordon lit into Johnson after he blocked him late in the race, which is a no-no among teammates. "[Jimmie] is testing my patience," Gordon said after he finished 22nd and Johnson, who wrecked with five laps left, came in 31st. "It takes a lot to make me mad, and I am pissed."
A three-time winner this year, Johnson still leads the points race, but Hamlin, who finished fifth in 2009 and is currently ninth, is closing fast after failing to crack the top 15 in the first five races of the season. His doctors have told him that his knee should be close to 100% by the time the Chase begins at New Hampshire on Sept. 19. Now everyone in the garage must wonder how scary fast he will be when he actually has two good legs.
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