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Caraviello: Hamlin perseveres through lonely struggle at 'Dega

October 24, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Left without a drafting partner, odd man out salvages his best finish in the Chase

The rejections came one after another, as if the spotter's stand at Talladega Superspeedway had turned into one large singles bar, and Curtis Markham had all the wrong pickup lines. Robby Gordon already had a partner. Martin Truex Jr. was committed to someone else. Dave Blaney was spoken for. Andy Lally wasn't interested. One by one they all gave Denny Hamlin's spotter the brush-off, while the No. 11 car ran a lap down all by its lonesome.

For all the reservations NASCAR fans have over the tandem drafting that restrictor-plate racing has evolved into over the past year, perhaps no one was more frustrated with it Sunday than last season's championship runner-up. Dropped by his planned partner and riding around by himself in a race where an accomplice was crucial to getting to the front, Hamlin spent 188 laps going through one drafting relationship after another. Some were brief flirtations, some ended badly, and some were the simply result of whomever was willing and nearby. All told, it was a maddening experience for a 17-time race winner who suddenly felt like an outcast.

"The best I can describe is, we were stuck without a date for the prom, so I was just hitting on everyone's mom."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"The guy we had worked [it] out to work with didn't work out at all," Hamlin said after somehow finishing eighth. "Obviously, there were 43 cars, and I was the 3. I was the odd one [out] for the whole race. The best I can describe is, we were stuck without a date for the prom, so I was just hitting on everyone's mom."

They weren't shy about it, that's for certain. Hamlin had planned to draft with Ryan Newman, who started much higher in the field, and conveniently alongside his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate -- and boss -- Tony Stewart. Almost as soon as the race began, Newman and Stewart hooked up, and Hamlin knew he had been left to fend for himself. With no help and running several seconds slower than the hooked-up cars as a result, he quickly fell a lap down. Markham worked the spotter's stand, looking for an available dance partner, but an odd number of cars still remained in the race and everyone else at the back of the field had other plans.

So they took what they could get. Hamlin agreed to push Robby Gordon, but only until Gordon got back up to his preferred drafting partner, Trevor Bayne. Once there, Gordon threatened to brake-check Hamlin if he didn't back off. Hamlin got a little too close to the Jimmie Johnson/Dale Earnhardt duo, nudging the rear of the No. 88 car a few times, and was told in so many words to scram. Fellow Toyota drivers Bobby Labonte and Michael Waltrip allowed Hamlin to draft off them, old school Talladega style, but not push like everyone else in the field was doing.

Whenever there was a crash or a problem that sent someone to the garage, Hamlin's team pounced on whichever partner had been left behind. He finally caught a break on lap 68 when Bayne nicked Joey Logano as the No. 20 car tried to duck into the pits, sending Logano spinning and ultimately shredding the front-left tire on his vehicle. Logano had been pushing Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing's highest-standing driver in the Chase. With one of Logano's wheel wells torn up, Busch was suddenly available. He and Hamlin worked together with some moderate success, at one point even moving into the lead, until A.J. Allmendinger came down across the No. 18 in a six-car accident on lap 104.

Busch went to the garage for repairs, and Hamlin's racing-relationship status once again changed to single.

"It just sucks that you can't worry about yourself," he said. "Racing is about you winning. And this is just like partner racing. It's so hard to make it work. Guys crash out, and then immediately you go to a guy whose partner crashed out, and you try to make it work with him. Well, he's the wrong manufacturer, so it's like -- it's so frustrating we can't just go out there and try to win the race for ourselves."

NASCAR had made some rule changes that were interpreted as an attempt to curtail the two-car drafts, giving drivers a little more horsepower and recalibrating the pressure relief-valve in the engine cooling system. Neither seemed to have much effect. Further complicating the situation was what appeared an unspoken directive on the part of Ford teams to only draft with one another. Chevrolet driver Stewart never linked up with Ford driver David Gilliland, with whom he had enjoyed much success in the spring race here. When Hamlin's Toyota team inquired about drafting with Ford driver Marcos Ambrose, they were rebuffed.

"He has to go with the 43," crew chief Mike Ford told Hamlin over the radio, referring to the damaged car of Allmendinger. "Fords aren't going to work with anyone else."

"That's the stupidest thing," Hamlin responded.

Those selective alliances came to a head late in the race, when Chevrolet driver Jeff Gordon and Ford driver Bayne, who worked together very well in the Daytona 500, seemed to strike an agreement to link up once again. Instead, Bayne went with fellow Ford driver Matt Kenseth, and finished 15th while a perplexed Gordon -- who had been separated from Mark Martin, his preferred drafting partner for much of the race -- plummeted to 27th.

"We talked on the radio a good bit, and agreed that he was going to push me," Gordon said. "I came on there and I said, 'Hey, what's your deal? You got anybody you're working with?' And he said, 'No, man, I'm pushing you.' And I went off my radio and talked to my guys and went back to his radio, and we talked through it, and he said, 'Yep, yep, yep.' So, Trevor came over to me [after the race] and said, 'Hey, it wasn't me, it wasn't me. That's what I'm being told to do.' But I'm surprised that somebody didn't come back over [the radio]. I just think it could have been handled better. If somebody is going to screw you, you'd like them to say it to your face you know? Or, at least on the radio."

Bayne wrote on Twitter after the race that he "would have rather pulled over and finished last" than promise to work with Gordon and instead "be strong armed into bailing." Gordon seemed to understand what the younger driver was up against.

"Politics play out sometimes," he said. "He feels terrible about it. Listen, at that point you work with anybody that you can when you lose your partner then you're desperate to find somebody. I was going to go with [Casey Mears], but Trevor lined up behind me, and when he agreed to it I said hey, we can't go with a better person than that. He's got a fast race car, we already have history of working well together, and I thought it was a no-brainer. But I probably should have known better."

Hamlin, meanwhile, was still on an island. After Busch went to the garage for repairs, his team made overtures to those of Stewart and Paul Menard -- no dice. Once again, he was relegated to just drafting and not pushing with Waltrip in an attempt to stay on the lead lap. After Kasey Kahne spun to bring out a caution on lap 129, Markham came over the radio with an offer: Newman, who had stood Hamlin up at the start of the race but had since suffered damage and fallen 16 laps down, was willing to team up. The No. 11 team was in no position to hold grudges.

"I'll take it," Hamlin said. The relationship was rocky from the start, with both drivers struggling to find a balance between pushing and leading, and each having issues with water temperatures creeping too high. After about 30 laps, and with his vehicle languishing in 22nd place, Hamlin had had enough. Logano, who had fallen as many as three laps down and had a chunk missing from the left-front corner of his race car, was finally called upon to hook up with his JGR teammate after the next round of pit stops. With Hamlin shouting out instructions like a co-driver in a rally car -- "Middle lane! Middle lane!" -- the pair crawled onto the verge of the top 10.

Under a caution with about 12 laps remaining, Newman came back on Hamlin's radio to inquire about his former partner's status. "You end up with a partner, Denny?" Newman asked. Hamlin said he had indeed joined up with Logano.

"I've just been hitting on everyone else's dates all day," Hamlin said.

"I'm going to try and find me a new one," Newman responded.

And so it went Sunday at Talladega. Somehow, Hamlin persevered and salvaged his best finish of this forgettable Chase, even moving up one spot in the standings and turning the playoff basement over to Newman. Even to the end, though, it was a lonely struggle. On the final restart Hamlin and Logano were separated, and Hamlin made the last two circuits of the race as he had started it -- all by himself.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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