In any team sport, the head coach may call the shots; but in the end, it's the players who determine just how good you really are.
That's what we saw Monday, with Denny Hamlin putting forth a Herculean effort after an awful call to pit by his "coach" (Mike Ford, crew chief) nearly cost him a Martinsville victory. Dropping to 9th from the lead with four laps left, a furious charge on fresh tires (plus a wild scrum during a green-white-checkered finish) produced his first win and his first top 10 of the year.
How in the world did he do it? That leads off five things we learned from a Manic Monday in rural Virginia:
1. Denny Hamlin raced like a man with nothing to lose.
Monday's win was bittersweet for Hamlin, set to go under the knife Wednesday to fix a torn ACL from December. After messing up the meniscus on his left knee this season (presumably inside the car), the risk of permanent damage was too great to hold off on surgery any longer.
"We're going to have to deal with the cards we're dealt," he said. "Things don't always happen the way you plan."
So with the Chase in jeopardy, let alone a run for the championship, Monday could be the lone highlight of what should have been his breakout year. Hamlin drove like a man possessed from the drop of the green, charging from the back after a dropped jack on a pit stop left him 29th by Lap 75. Two-hundred circuits later, he was out front, seemingly in control (leading a race-high 172 laps) until a caution for JeffBurton's blown tire bunched up the field. But when Ford's decision to pit put him behind, he showed the type of fortitude you'd expect from a man expected to contend for titles.
"This is the most gratifying win I've had simply because we came through adversity so many times, whether it be because of pit road or that dash at the end," he said. "We just flat out drove through 'em at the end and got the win. I'm not sure we've gotten a win like this before."
He hasn't, and the boost of confidence along with a bump to 15th in points has him refusing to wave the white flag of surrender -- despite what amounts to a season-ending injury in other sports. Journeyman Casey Mears has been hired to standby for Hamlin post-op, and while the 29-year-old expects not to miss a race, typical ACL recoveries make that a longshot at best. Most patients don't drive for a month, let alone try and do 300-plus miles inside a race car; so if Hamlin even drives to the first caution at Phoenix, it will be nothing short of miraculous based on opinions I've gathered from past ACL sufferers and experts in the field.
"We were not going to sacrifice our season," he said. "Trust me, I'm going to come back stronger."
Time will tell.
2. The Matt Kenseth--Jeff Gordon rivalry is back.
Hamlin's victory charge got a boost by two former champs trying to take eachother out. On the final restart, Gordon led, with Kenseth right behind him on the inside. But a slow start caused Kenseth to not just bump but dive underneath the No. 24, muscling himself up to first place. The No. 17 Ford accelerated hard down the backstretch; Kenseth thought his first Martinsville win was in sight.
"[Jeff] just took a left as hard as he could take, and ran me down all the way into the marbles," he said of contact between the two -- enough to give Hamlin the opening he needed. "I couldn't hang onto it when I got to [turn] three. It's nothing Jeff wouldn't have done or hasn't done to me. He knew I'd wreck when I got to the corner."
"It was a dumb move on my part. I figured I'd go for the win which, in hindsight, was probably a mistake."
But it was Gordon who thinks Kenseth made a boo boo, angry for the way he was raced into the corner in a move that cost him a win.
"I made sure he wasn't going to win the race after that," said the four-time champ. It was not the first time he's played poorly with the No. 17; their list of squabbles includes just about one a year: Bristol (2006), Chicagoland ('06), Las Vegas ('08), and Talladega ('09). And with both drivers off to solid starts, the best thing possible for NASCAR would be to see this rivalry bubble up towards the front once again.
3. Bad brakes gave new meaning to the term "burnt rubber."
Brakes used to fail in large numbers at Martinsville. Ten years ago, a dozen cars would have ended this race inside the garage without them.
But now, the threat has switched to burnt rubber. Better equipment allows drivers to put the brake pedal to the floor without fear of calipers breaking. But running them hard also causes the rotors to get red hot, gradually melting the bead (think the hoop in the center of your tire) and sending car after car smack into the outside wall.
"I know historically over the last several races here, brake temperature is very critical," said Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford. "Goodyear made some adjustments to the tire here to be able to allow for higher temperatures, but all that does is let you run the brakes hotter, and you reach the same point."
Two of Monday's half-dozen victims were drivers with a history of abusing their car: Juan Pablo Montoya and Robby Gordon. But when even Regan Smith, who'sknown for taking care of equipment, has issues, Goodyear may need to take a second look at a stronger, heat-absorbing compound for the Fall.
4. Some records are meant to be broken.
NASCAR is always a game of numbers, and plenty of drivers found their way on the stats sheet after a shocking switch of the final running order. Among the highlights of this ridiculous ending:
• Joey Logano (2nd) earned his first career top 10 in seven tries on short tracks. The runner-up finish was also his best since winning New Hampshire last June.
• Ryan Newman (4th) collected his first top 5 in 30 races (dating to Pocono last June).
• Brian Vickers (6th) snagged his best ever finish at a short track in 32 starts (with a career that dates back to 2004).
• Kenseth ended his 5-for-5 streak of top 10s with a 20th place finish. Only Greg Biffle (10th) has top 10 finishes in each of the Sprint Cup series' first six races.
• New point leader Jimmie Johnson (9th) failed to lead a lap at Martinsville for the first time in 4½ years. In his last eight starts there, he'd led 1,380 laps, won five times, and never finished lower than fourth.
• Montoya (36th) broke a career-best streak of six top 20 finishes in six Martinsville starts. He's now 25th in the standings, already 171 points out of a Chase spot.
5. Awesome racing + awful attendance leaves Martinsville's second date ... where?
Instant reaction points to this race being a rousing on-track success. But hidden behind the cheers from the crowd is the cold reality there wasn't much of one. The rain-delayed attendance Monday was only 40,000, and even Sunday's attendance fell short of expectations (58,000 at a track that seats anywhere between 65 and 67,000).
That number's far lower than the 72,000 that showed up at Fontana earlier this season (the other rumored track to lose a date to fellow ISC-owned Kansas in 2011). Racing at this paperclip was clearly better ... but in the world of business, money talks. It's a story to watch over the next several weeks, with fan rebellion virtually guaranteed if NASCAR drops a date from this track -- the only one to appear on the schedule every year since the sport's inception in 1949.
Underdog Shoutout of the Week: Front Row Motorsports shuffled driver David Gilliland into a different ride this week, throwing him in the No. 37 car in hopes he could help build a cushion for that team inside the top 35. One 19th-place finish later, Gilliland's best run of the year also came packaged with the words: "Mission Accomplished."
Race Grade: A+. This was the type of race that has "instant classic" written all over it: side-by-side action building to a frenetic, wild finish with a surprise winner. FOX broadcaster LarryMcReynolds said it best, stealing a line from the famous Kirk Gibson home run call by Jack Buck: "I can't believe what I just saw."