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For Johnson, even small victories can mean a lot
The No. 11 pit box stood at the extreme end of the long, curving pit road at Phoenix International Raceway, right about at the transition between the frontstretch and the first turn. Relief driver Casey Mears sat on top, on a bench behind shock specialist Tim Sparkman. Ever-present gnats flitted in the late-afternoon sunlight as the event's 100-lap mark -- Denny Hamlin's loose, self-imposed deadline for getting out of the car -- gradually approached. And still Hamlin stayed in the vehicle, despite a left anterior cruciate knee ligament that had been surgically repaired only 11 days earlier. Later, as an orange-tinted sunset bloomed behind the Estrella Mountains, he stayed in the vehicle despite being two laps down because of fender damage and a battery problem. Hamlin stayed in the vehicle all the way until the end, until the finish of a bitter, frustrating, minimum-points effort, until tire specialist Patrick Mullen helped pull him through the driver's side window opening while fireworks shot overhead celebrating Ryan Newman's surprise victory. How much was he hurting? "More than I can tell you," he said afterward in a darkened garage area. "I'm pretty sure I didn't do any damage or anything like that, but I'm absolutely exhausted right now." He had every excuse to get out. The combination of body damage incurred from contact with Kurt Busch and a disastrous attempt to change out a flagging battery took Hamlin out of the Subway Fresh Fit 600 when it was barely a third of the way through. No one would have thought any less of him if, during the long pit stop necessitated by the battery switch, he had decided he'd endured enough and turned the car over to Mears. No question, he was in discomfort -- on the pace laps he reminded his team to give him water at every opportunity, and at times his voice on the radio was barely above a whisper. Yet he hung in there uncomplainingly, only referring to his condition when someone else brought it up.
Such as early in the event, when crew chief Mike Ford tiptoed around the subject. "Just don't ask me," was Hamlin's succinct response, and nobody did. Whatever pain he was in, he kept it to himself. The talk on the radio was all business, all about loose and tight and grip, all about the struggle of being two laps down and not about the struggle of driving two-footed with one bad leg."I was going to do all I could do," Hamlin said. "I reached a point, probably 160 laps in I looked at the scoreboard to see how much more time I had to stay in there, and that's about the time we went about two laps down. I knew that if I got out of the car, I was going to hear all kinds of stuff from everyone else saying I gave up on the team. That's one thing I'm not going to do is give up on these guys. It didn't matter if I knew we weren't going to gain one more position, and I knew it once we went two laps down. I felt like it was important for me to be in that car."
Could he have gotten out? Absolutely. Should he have gotten out? Probably, but he likely should be using crutches, too, yet in public he's walking around unaided. Drivers live by a different ethos, one where pain and discomfort is sometimes part of the job description, and they bite their tongues and put up with it just as they would a poor-handling race car. Clearly, 11 days after ACL surgery, Hamlin would have let no one down by stepping out of a vehicle that had zero chance to win, and in the end netted a 30th-place finish and all of 73 points. But in his mind, he would have. What if Ford or car owner Joe Gibbs had come on the radio and suggested he get out? "I would have considered it," he said, "but to me, I can't watch somebody else get in there."
Nothing, it turns out, blocks out pain more than stubborn pride. To be fair, Hamlin said he felt better before the race Saturday than he had 24 hours before -- he was able to stay off his feet for most of the day until the event, he had his stitches removed to allow for a little more mobility, and he posted a somewhat grisly photo on Twitter of a syringe full of all the bloody fluid that had been extracted from the knee. And from the very beginning, it was clear Saturday that the decision on whether or not to get out of the car would be the driver's alone.
"Before the race, I really didn't know," said Joe Gibbs Racing team president J.D. Gibbs, when asked if Hamlin had planned to attempt the full 375 laps, which wound up being 378 with a green-white-checkered finish. "I figured if we were running pretty well, no way. So when he had the couple of issues and went a couple of laps down, I figured, he might choose to get out. He didn't. To his credit, he sucked it up and went the whole way."
Dave Rogers, crew chief to teammate
Kyle Busch and someone who's worked with Hamlin in the Nationwide Series, wasn't surprised. "I never had any doubt," he said. "He's a tough guy. He raced our Nationwide car when he was as sick as he could be, and he toughed it out. I didn't think Denny would get out of the car. I'm real proud of him."
A day earlier, Hamlin had said that if he could make it to Lap 100, he didn't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to go all the way. He was true to his word, despite a host of hurdles that turned his evening into a struggle that had nothing to do with a torn ligament. The first came on Lap 15, when Busch and
Kasey Kahne tangled, and the spinning No. 2 car kissed the right side of Hamlin's vehicle just hard enough to dent it (watch video). Then came an electrical issue that forced Hamlin to turn off fans to save power. With the No. 11 car solidly in the top 20, Ford made the decision to keep track position, and try to fix both problems later in the event. That opportunity came in a caution period prompted by debris on Lap 135. According to Gibbs, the team removed the battery only to discover that it wasn't drained, and that the problem was perhaps with a gauge. The No. 11 put in the new battery, but evidently the connection didn't take -- Hamlin lost power trying to leave pit road, had to be pushed back to his pit stall, and have the battery reconnected again. The entire saga left them two laps down. Hamlin admits, he briefly considered getting out. "We weren't going to gain anything by staying in there," said Hamlin, who will also have Mears on standby next Sunday at Texas. "The only thing I was going to gain was maybe some respect of the team guys, just because I knew our day was shot to hell. I wasn't going to give up on them. I wasn't going to lay down on them."
So like
Ricky Rudd driving with swollen eyeballs, Mark Martin driving with all kinds of broken body parts, and Richard Petty
driving with a broken neck, Hamlin stayed in the seat. In the end, he seemed thoroughly beaten down -- but not by the pain in his knee. After a hard three hours and 48 minutes at Phoenix, like a true race car driver, he appeared more disgusted by the result than anything else.
"It was just a miserable experience," he said. "To be honest, I'd have been too embarrassed to give Casey the car I had [Saturday]. That's just not what we're accustomed to."

Redazione - 11 aprile 2010

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