Tom Bowles
Tuesday April 20th, 2010

Just 19 days after surgery to repair a torn ACL, there was Denny Hamlin standing in Texas' Victory Lane, beating rival Jimmie Johnson and stamping an "I'm back!" label on what had been a lost 2010 season.

Where does Hamlin go from here? That's just one of five storylines to follow after 500 miles of racing down in Fort Worth:

1. Hamlin's championship Chase is back in business.

For Hamlin, I have a two-word response to his recent tear through the Sprint Cup field:

"I'm sorry."

Three weeks ago, I joined many others in thinking his 2010 season was a wash. Just days after winning at Martinsville, he was headed for reconstructive ACL surgery that typically keeps people from driving for a month. A pronouncement of a return to the car nine days later seemed more foolhardy than feasible.

Hamlin toughed out the race in Phoenix, lasting 375 laps en route to a 30th-place finish that was all guts, no glory. Eschewing the use of relief driver Casey Mears, he lost ground in the points yet was left armed with the confidence this surgery could be overcome. That paid off throughout a grueling 500 miles at Texas, where an exhausted driver used that experience to keep his energy up, pushing a top-5 car towards the win during the closing laps.

Once the big wreck eliminated several contenders (Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart among them) a late two-tire stop for track position left the No. 11 car up front and despite Johnson breathing down his neck late in the going, Hamlin held on to take the checkered flag.

"It paid off this weekend," he said of his decision to push it at Phoenix. "If I would have got out, who knows if those guys would have done or had the mentality or been behind me as much as they were this week. I doubt it. I wouldn't have been. I would have felt like the driver gave up on me."

Instead, no one's given up as the No. 11 team bonded in righting the ship on their season. With a win on an intermediate track, Hamlin's biggest weakness, more friendly tracks Talladega and Richmond lie ahead. Suddenly, that 1-2 finish between him and Johnson looks like a possible rivalry that could spark in the fall once again.

Speaking of rivalries ...

2. Jeff Gordon's frustration boils over ... with his own teammate.

Last race, we talked about how Gordon's now 36-race winless streak has piled up amidst seven runner-up finishes. Monday, we saw how much it's finally getting to him. Leading 69 of the first 233 laps, Gordon's chance for the win almost fizzled after a four-tire stop got him stuck in traffic after a caution. But he moved like gangbusters back through the pack, slamming Johnson while slicing his way back to the lead in just 20 laps.

"I am pretty disappointed in how he was racing me today," said the four-time champion driver [Johnson] about his four-time champion owner. "But we will get to the bottom of it and sort it out. No need to play it out in the press."

Gordon ruffling his own driver's feathers? When that happens, you know this wily veteran is getting ticked off. Yet for what seems like the umpteenth week in a row, it's his pit crew he should be mad at. Despite the track position four fresh tires cost him, during the next caution with 20 to go crew chief Steve Letarte made the same decision again. That left Gordon seventh, stuck in traffic and a sitting duck for some wild, three-wide racing that ended in a multi-car wreck that crumbled his Chevy.

"I saw Tony [Stewart] backing up, and then he got loose," he said, describing the mess that struck not three laps after the ensuing restart. "I ended up getting underneath him and we were three wide. Just saw a lot of guys racing hard and we ran out of room. I got clipped in the right rear."

"Man, what a race car. Gosh, what a race car we had."

The problem is that race car didn't make it to the finish in one piece, adding to a long list of early missed opportunities. Remember Gordon's ugly season of 2005? In that one, he won four times but crashed in eight, missing the Chase and leading to former crew chief Robbie Loomis' departure. While fifth in points, fiery frustration can only carry the No. 24 for so long before the "repeat" button gets pushed.

3. Big wreck winners and losers.

Many teams that were cruising towards a top-10 finish got wiped out by that multi-car incident. Earnhardt Ganassi Racing may have suffered the most: Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray wrecked for the fourth time in eight races while Juan Pablo Montoya had his third crash in his last four Texas starts. Both are well outside the top 20 in points and longshots to make the Chase. Carl Edwards and Stewart also saw promising performances torn to pieces, meaning surviving Talladega is critical to righting their respective ships.

On the flip side, in a touch of irony Mark Martin and future replacement Kasey Kahne benefited from the nine-car carnage. Martin was a lap down until taking the wave-around with 20 to go; 21st at that point, he wound up sixth at the finish. Kahne was one spot better, taking home his first top 5 in over a month after spending most of the day outside of the top 15.

"Once you get back [in traffic], you're pretty equal with a lot of cars," he said. " We needed some to disappear."

Good thing they did.

4. New spoiler? No problem.

NASCAR's third race with the new spoiler was also its most nerve-wracking. A green racetrack and Texas' high speeds caused worries the event would be a demolition derby. Instead, a sigh of relief came in the form of long green-flag runs with just four isolated one-car incidents as drivers adjusted to a different type of handling package. Sure, there was a big crash at the end, but that was the cause of NASCAR's double-file restart rule bunching up the field --not the car's new rear-end configuration.

So what impact did the spoiler have? Next to nothing, which was both a blessing and a curse. While most of the cars ended the day in one piece, they struggled to run side-by-side for long as their dreaded "aero push" didn't get better but worse.

"It's still tight," said 13th-place finisher A.J. Allmendinger, a complaint echoed by several others. "I was really tight behind other cars."

Still, the spoiler was better than most expected. The cars look great, there's a baseline to build from and there are more ways that teams can adjust during races. I'd give it a 'C' for its intermediate track debut, clearly a work-in-progress.

"The car drives about the same," summed up Dale Earnhardt Jr. "So it is what it is. It would be pretty awesome if we could get a little more nose downforce and stuff like that [from NASCAR]. It'll happen. It'll just take awhile."

5. Junior's finally on the rise, while Team Red Bull is fading fast.

Speaking of Earnhardt, he had arguably his best day in a long time at Texas. Taking advantage of a call by crew chief Lance McGrew to pit off-sequence, he stayed out during a yellow flag, caught track position and wound up leading a total of 46 laps. It's the longest the veteran's been up front since last April at Phoenix, and despite an eventual (and expected) "Junior fade" to eighth at the finish, the run provided a fresh boost of confidence for everyone involved with the No. 88. Most importantly, it left the driver filled with passion after spending most of last season looking listless.

"We're a good team," he said after late-race cautions kept him from a certain top-5 finish. "We can be a great team and we just have to keep working."

On the flip side, Brian Vickers exhibited the wrong type of passion with Team Red Bull. Blown tires caused not one but two spins with the No. 83, prompting the 2009 surprise Chase participant to scream: "You can meet me in the [expletive] garage! I'm not getting back in this goddamn car until it's fixed!" to his crew.

A quick look at the stats shows why Cinderella's turning grumpy. In four intermediate track starts in 2010 (the team's bread and butter) they're averaging a 22nd-place finish (compared to 9.5 a year ago). Add in four straight runs outside the top 15 for teammate Scott Speed, and Team Red Bull's digging itself a pretty serious hole.

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