NASCAR & Auto Racing

Just as important as $1 million, Denny Hamlin found speed at Charlotte

Denny Hamlin celebrates his win in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord.
Denny Hamlin celebrates his win in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Certainly, the $1 million is important to Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin’s victory in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was the first for him, the Joe Gibbs Racing organization and Toyota Racing.

Not as apparent in the sometimes complicated, five-segment event but just as important for Hamlin’s fortunes this season was another gem.

Let Hamlin explain: “Obviously we had to hold off (Kevin Harvick), and we haven’t been able to do that for about two years. Luckily it was just 10 laps.”

On the surface it may not seem that big a deal. After all, 10-lap shootouts are hardly common occurrences in Sprint Cup Series races that typically run 400 to 500 miles.

But for Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota team and the JGR organization, finding the speed to match the reigning Cup series champion has been a difficult endeavor.

Saturday night, they got a glimpse of what could be.

And they liked what they saw.

“Hopefully, there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Hamlin said. “Like we talked about, we hadn’t been able to run with a lot of the Hendrick cars or the Stewart-Haas cars over the last year and a half.

“We were able to beat them in an arm wrestling match at least for 10 laps. It was great.”

The signal from Toyota and JGR that they may be on the right path couldn’t come at a better time.

Hamlin and his teammate, Matt Kenseth, are already locked this season’s Chase so it’s easier for those teams to experiment with what they’ve learned and how to perfect it prior to the 10-race playoff later this year.

If the improvement continues to materialize on 1.5-mile tracks, it also benefits teammates Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, who continue to search for their first win of the year.

It’s especially important for Busch, who needs to win at least one race and get in the Top 30 of points within the next 15 races after missing the first 11 races of the season due to injury.

“We’ve been behind on intermediate (tracks). We worked extremely hard,” said team owner Joe Gibbs. “My hope is that this is going to be a sign that we’re closing the gap. But we’ll have to see.

“The 600 (next weekend) will be a big deal for us. I know it was a shot in the arm for all of us and a lift to get a chance to run intermediate stuff and be up front with real good cars, be able to run with them.

“We’ll just have to see what this means going forward.”

Added Hamlin: “This is a big learning process for us, obviously. When you’re as far behind as what we were over this last year and a half, it’s just not overnight that you are going to flip a switch and be better. It’s a work in progress.”

In the meantime, Hamlin and the rest of the JGR organization can savor accomplishing one of the few remaining “firsts” left for them in NASCAR competition.

“When you have something like this, something that just keeps bugging you, that we just can’t get a win here in this race, it was a huge deal for us from that standpoint,” said Gibbs.

“For me personally, you know, it’s hard to separate the thrills when you get one like this because, you know, it’s hard to think back in the past. All those great wins are so much fun.

“I get excited every week. I really get fired up about going to the race track.”

After one weekend in Charlotte, there appears to be good reason.

Utter: 704- 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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