To earn those bragging rights Hamlin dominated, leading 123 of 200 laps en route to his career-high fifth win of the season. But that victory wasn't without some drama, which leads off the five things we learned from Michigan International Speedway.
1. What's up with all of the late-race cautions? There's no question 2010 is a pivotal year for the sport. Attendance and revenue are down sharply, and the economy's taken its toll on sponsorship, ownership and driver development. Add in declining TV ratings, and NASCAR needs to put its best foot forward to turn the tide before renewal contracts begin in 2011.
It doesn't hurt NASCAR's cause that 13 of 15 races this season have had exciting finishes, most after cautions came out during the last 25 laps, with five of those for something as simple as fluid or debris on the racetrack. That's caused chaos, bunching up the field, which has led to late-race wrecks and frantic finishes -- all of which jumble the final running order and threaten to erase 400 miles of dominance from one car.
Michigan was the latest example. Hamlin was on cruise control by almost 10 seconds late in the race, with victory in hand until a debris caution came out on Lap 182 for a piece of what looked like rubber on the backstretch.
"It was a big piece of debris back there," said Kasey Kahne. "I saw it."
Was it dangerous enough to pose a safety hazard, or was NASCAR looking for any excuse to justify bunching up the field? That's where driver quotes begged to differ, with Hamlin all but calling out officials.
"I understand this is show business," he said in frustration. "I didn't see any debris, if that's what you're asking. I mean, we typically get [a debris caution] every single week. I'm not going to say it's accepted, but what can you do?"
Of all the Cup drivers, Hamlin may have the most reason to be upset, with a victory nearly lost at Pocono one week earlier after a debris caution with 45 laps to go set up a wild finish. So what should the expectation be going forward? Should there be cause for concern?
"Basketball, to me, is the worst sport of all when it comes to bad calls," Brad Keselowski said in his diary with SI.com on Friday. "They may not throw yellow flags, but they have fouls and bad calls. Other sports do it as well. So from that standpoint, you can't say you don't see bad calls in other sports, because I really feel like you do. Then again, that doesn't make it right. At some point there's a level of credibility that we must all maintain, that the finish to the race was a legitimate and fair one."
That's what the conspiracy theorists fear NASCAR is risking with what they perceive as a consistent pattern of late-race cautions. More important is that if drivers believe nothing matters until the final 100 miles, they're not going to race hard enough for the first 300 to keep fans tuned in all the way through.
2. Winning the championship is becoming an expectation, not a goal for Hamlin. In the matter of two months, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has turned a lost season, courtesy a torn ACL, into a post-surgery miracle. Besides the five wins, his 11.8 average finish and mere 47 points out of the championship lead are career bests for 15 races in.
That's put Hamlin back on the level pundits expected earlier this season: Jimmie Johnson's main championship challenger. At the moment, Hamlin has more wins, top-5s, and fewer DNFs than the four-time reigning champ, driving for an organization in Joe Gibbs Racing's that's the hottest on the circuit.
"We've worked very, very hard to get to this spot," Hamlin said Sunday. "We're not going to get complacent."
The key is to hold that confidence as the pressure mounts. An emotional guy, Hamlin's been susceptible to getting down during bad stretches. When that inevitable three or four race slump comes before the Chase -- and it will -- how will the No. 11 team react? That'll show us how far they've come while looking to take the next step on top of the head stage at Las Vegas.
3. No one needs the Hendrick mystery cleared up more than Mark Martin. Last year's defending winner, Martin was listless during the race on Sunday. Starting 21st, he never cracked the top 10 except during green-flag pit stops and finished a mediocre 16th. It's the fifth run of 15th or worse in his last six starts, a streak where he's failed to lead a lap despite a healthy average start of 11.3.
What's wrong? Personnel is part of the problem, as the loss of Martin's engineer, Chris Heroy, to the No. 88 hurt more than expected in NASCAR's increasingly high-tech world. But lost in the midst of finding the handling is Martin's twisted heart as off-track distractions haunt him. As I mentioned within my Friday news brief, Kahne's unsettled situation for 2011 combines with the uncertain future of Martin, the man he's replacing, in 2012. As Martin mulls a possible ownership offer behind the scenes, weeks of constant questioning about if, when, and how he'll take that next step beyond the No. 5 car appears to be weighing on a 51-year-old who's tired of media scrutiny.
"Last year, I would say I checked what was going on in the racing world every single day," he said Friday. "I've stopped doing that. It has affected me to some degree. I'm watching less of it on TV and reading less of it on the internet as of right now."
Hendrick Motorsports made clear this weekend it'll be another couple of weeks before 2011 plans come to fruition. But considering how badly Martin is running, it's the sooner the better before missing the Chase wastes 2010.
4. Joey Logano bounces back like a veteran. One week after making national news following a post-race brouhaha with Kevin Harvick, Logano held his ground both off the track and on it.
"I don't take nothing back," Logano said calmly during a crowded Friday presser, responding to Harvick's continued criticism of his behavior. "I'm a man of my word. I said what I had to, and that's it."
"When it comes down to the end of the race, you should be able to race. Why would you roll over and die? You've got to have that fire in your eye."
That passion was evident Sunday, the sophomore holding firm near the front of the pack in finishing a solid 10th. It's a fourth straight run of 13th or better, consistency that leaves him just 107 points from being the youngest driver ever to make the 10-race playoff. The bounceback is similar to last September, when a wild flip at Dover left him as shaken as I've ever seen him. The very next race he ran, he won the Nationwide race at Kansas, showcasing the talent that had Mark Martin labeling him the next big star before he even got his real license at age 16.
Expect that spark to last long into the summer, Logano clearly stealing the firesuit from both Harvicks in coming out of this incident smelling like a rose.
5. In the midst of a trying season, Team Red Bull hit rock bottom. The last time we came to Michigan, it was cause for celebration for Team Red Bull: their No. 83 Toyota scored its first victory with flagship driver Brian Vickers behind the wheel. Four weeks later, they'd make their first ever Chase and go on to finish 12th in the standings.
Hard to believe that was only 10 months ago. Heading into Sunday's race, the team had yet to record a top-5 finish since and Vickers wasn't even entered this weekend -- he's sidelined for the season with a blood clotting issue. Replacement Casey Mears has yet to run higher than 22nd as his replacement, then added insult to injury by spinning out teammate Scott Speed when both were outside the top 30.
"We're running in the very back of the pack like crap," said Speed after looping around. "And we're going to wreck each other?"
Sounds like a man not too happy with his interim colleague. But the kicker came when Mears came to pit road, running into David Ragan in an incident that cost the latter a top-10 finish while sending the No. 83 behind the wall for repairs. Mears wound up 36th while Speed was 28th, an awful weekend that shows just how fast you can fall from the top in this sport.