Just 19 days after surgery to repair a torn ACL, there was
Where does Hamlin go from here? That's just one of five storylines to follow after 500 miles of racing down in Fort Worth:
For Hamlin, I have a two-word response to his recent tear through the Sprint Cup field:
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
Once the big wreck eliminated several contenders (
"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 ...
"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
"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
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
On the flip side, in a touch of irony
"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.
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
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
Speaking of Earnhardt, he had arguably his best day in a long time at Texas. Taking advantage of a call by crew chief
"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,
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