Tom Bowles
Sunday May 9th, 2010

Most people buy Mom flowers for Mother's Day.

Denny Hamlin? He makes the rest of us look a little cheap by bringing home a shiny gold trophy.

The 29-year-old took home one of NASCAR's crown jewels Saturday night, winning the Southern 500 one day after honoring his parents in a heartfelt Victory Lane speech in the Nationwide Series. But a win at Darlington means much more than a nice new family mantelpiece for the dining room table. Find out why it's got Jimmie Johnson looking over his shoulder in Five Things We've Learned From The Track Too Tough To Tame:

1. Denny Hamlin is tipping the scales against Jimmie Johnson ... for now.

Hamlin was quick to downplay what the latest win meant towards his bid for the championship. But after taking his third race in the last six, it's clear the man picked as a trendy preseason favorite to unseat the No. 48 is now living up to expectations.

"It's very encouraging for me that we're winning right now under the circumstances," said Hamlin, who is 2-for-4 since surgery on his torn ACL that threatened to sideline his season. "We've made it through by making smart decisions and not changing anything too drastic."

Instead, the drama was left to Johnson, who hit everything but the kitchen sink en route to a disastrous day. After he got involved in some minor scrapes, A.J. Allmendinger used the No. 48 as his personal safety net once the brakes went out on his Ford. In one of the harder hits both have ever taken, they slammed into the turn 3 wall at nearly 200 miles an hour before Johnson's totaled car came to rest.

"He wasn't in my line of sight, then all of a sudden here came a car flying at me," said the four-time champ, registering his first DNF at an unrestricted track since the Coca-Cola 600 in May of 2008. "Just wrong place, wrong time, I guess."

Chad Knaus wasn't as relaxed, refusing comment after a night in which he created his own R-rated version of profanity tirades on the radio. Suddenly, the team that looked unstoppable after the first five races has lost both the point lead and its invincibility factor in the last six.

So after both Hamlin and Johnson have combined to win 11 of the last 18 races, who has the upper hand in their battle? Certainly, Johnson should get the benefit of the doubt but there doesn't appear to be anyone hotter than Hamlin right now. What's interesting is the team has adopted its rival's strategy, running old cars while doing off-track testing and focusing on the Chase. The fact they're taking home trophies at races they're virtually ignoring speak volumes about the strength of this team going forward.

"It's tough to say," Hamlin said when asked how the two compare at this point in the year. "It's still so early in the season, and I'm sure there's no cause for panic on their side.

"Us? We're just winning races. That's all I can say."

2. Veterans keep finding rookie mistakes to lose.

Speaking of winning, Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon have 103 combined victories between them. But this year, they've added a new stat to their Hall of Fame resumes: finding 103 ways to lose a chance at the checkered flag. They had the two fastest cars late in the race again Saturday night, only to blow a chance at challenging Hamlin based on rookie mistakes. For Gordon, he simply whiffed on bringing the car to pit road, missing his pit with 25 laps left before a caution during his actual stop trapped him at the tail end of the lead lap.

"I just didn't get slowed down good enough," he said after a furious late-race charge back to fourth. "I was going to get run over. My fault."

With Gordon down for the count, it looked like Burton would be in position to challenge for his first win since Charlotte in the fall of 2008. But after coming down pit road under caution, a miscommunication on when his stop was finished caused him to run over the air hose on the way out. That penalty left him at the end of the longest line, out of both contention and patience after shooting himself in the foot.

"We have to make a decision on whether we need to be a championship team or whether we want to just to pretend to be one," he said after a rally to eighth. "I think we're a championship team, and I think our guys will get it together and be just fine. But it's frustrating, and it's disappointing."

It's also shocking to those who have seen these men on top of their game for years. Both need victories to stem the tide of recent slumps.

3. Ford, where art thou, Ford?

It's a good thing "Win on Sunday, Sell On Monday" isn't what it used to be, otherwise Ford would need some bailout money after all. They're a pitching an 0-for-26 shutout on Victory Lane in NASCAR's top three series this season, winless in Cup since Jamie McMurray's Talladega triumph last October.

On Saturday, things couldn't have been worse. No Ford led a lap at the Lady In Black for the first time since April 1980, a far cry from a year ago when Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle led the most with 113. The highest-finishing car was just Matt Kenseth in 13th, and after halfway none of the Fusions so much as sniffed the top 10.

Said Edwards after fighting to 15th: "That was like a victory tonight. I know that's a very masochistic thing to say." Good thing he's got AFLAC to help him, because he and everyone else at Ford are inflicting nothing but pain on the racetrack as of late.

4. This track no longer too tough to tame -- for the tires, that is.

Two years after being repaved, the Lady In Black remains as treacherous for drivers as it ever was. Yet hidden within multiple Darlington stripes is a tragic loss of another racing skill: preserving your tires over the course of a full green-flag run. Goodyear's tire compound was so rock hard, drivers could go almost two full stops on left-side tires at a place that used to eat rubber up and spit it out within 10 laps.

"I think all the drivers would tell you it would be really nice when the caution comes out if you had to put four tires on," said Jamie McMurray. "It just seems like it's frustrating to run in the front for the majority of the race and then the way the pit strategies work out ... it would be nice if the tire had a little more falloff."

Unless Goodyear changes the compound, don't expect that to happen anytime soon. New pavement can take upwards of five or 10 years to start becoming abrasive enough to affect tires, leaving long green-flag runs filled with too much parity and no passing.

5. Earnhardt Ganassi's creeping back into contention.

It's been a rough start for EGR this season after winning the Daytona 500 with Jamie McMurray. But after a slump that included crashing out teammate Juan Pablo Montoya in Las Vegas, the No. 1 car's bounced back with two runner-up finishes in the last three races to bump McMurray up to 16th in points.

"We've been able to put ourselves in position to win three races this year," he said after leading 71 laps at Darlington -- the most for him on an unrestricted track since Dover in May 2006. "I don't know that in my career I've been able to do that, much less in the first eight or 10 races."

Across the way, teammate Montoya was left for dead after four wrecks/mechanical failures in the first eight weeks. But all of a sudden, three top six finishes have him seventeenth in the standings, just 15 behind McMurray and 54 points out of a top-12 spot.

"I'm just relieved we got to the end to tell you the truth," he said, scarred by two months' worth of bad luck. "It was hard work."

Hard work that has him back on the radar as a darkhorse championship contender.

Race Grade: B. This race is the type where drivers race the track, not themselves. But while single-file racing would be sleep-inducing at an intermediate, this egg-shaped oval leaves every car on the edge of control so often you're mesmerized from start to finish. The race was a bit of a runaway at the end, but the first 450 miles made up for it -- and then some.

Thanks to Ed Lane from 1160 AM Martinsville for Jeff Burton audio.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.