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Gordon, Hamlin rally for strong finish at M'ville

October 31, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com



Gordon, Hamlin rally for strong finish at M'ville

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Fans at Martinsville Speedway barely had enough time to pop the cap on the first beer in the cooler Sunday afternoon before Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin were on pit road with damage.

And yet, both drivers were all smiles at the end of the Tums Fast Relief 500 . Not only had they rallied from a potentially disastrous day, but had dominant cars in the second half of the race and recorded top-five finishes. Imagine how good Gordon and Hamlin might have been without having to rally from the back of the pack.

Getting in a wreck before there are even 10 laps on the scoreboard is perhaps the worst-case scenario for a driver at Martinsville, particularly when you damage something as important as the brake ducts.

But that's exactly what happened to Gordon when Dale Earnhardt Jr. dove to the inside of the track heading into Turn 1 on Lap 8. Junior ran into the left-rear quarter panel of Kurt Busch, sending him spinning and triggering a chain-reaction accident that caught up Gordon, Hamlin and two others.

"It looked like he got the curb and we had nowhere to go," Gordon said. "I chose to go high and I should have gone low. I center-punched him."

Hamlin had a feeling something was about to happen but had no way to avoid it.

"There were some anxious cars up in front of us and they got together," Hamlin said. "When they did, we got caught in it. We locked up the brakes and someone hit us from behind.

"But it's a small enough track to where the speed was slow enough that we knew we didn't have much damage. So we knew we had a car that was still capable of winning."

While Hamlin's damage was mainly cosmetic, Gordon's wasn't. He made four stops under the extended caution in an effort to repair the right-front brake duct.

"A lot of it was underneath the front bumper," Gordon said. "At this place, especially keeping the brakes cool and even the radiator is so important. We did the best we could fixing it. I think the guys did a great job. And even though we made a lot of pit stops there, we were still able to make our way to the front."

Hamlin restarted 30th and Gordon 34th at a place where track position is paramount. But Earnhardt's aggressiveness seemed to rub off on several other drivers. There were five cautions before the race reached 100 laps, setting up a number of pit strategies and allowing for more repairs.

"At one time I thought we had the car to beat, but on the long, long runs, Denny was a little bit better than us."

--JEFF GORDON


_______________________

"It feels great to be fast, to be competitive the way we were today."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"It helped us work on the car," Gordon said. "It helped us get track position. We could get out of sequence with other cars. And then when they came in, we could stay out.

"That's the thing, we went from 34th to all of the sudden, 25th. And then from that point on, we could start racing guys and moving our way to the front."

And that's exactly what both Gordon and Hamlin did. Hamlin grabbed the lead from A.J. Allmendinger on Lap 63 and eventually led twice for 58 laps. Gordon took a little longer to get to the front, but wound up leading 113 laps.

"There were times when we weren't passing anybody," Gordon said. "But the track came to us and then we got some good track position, and ended up getting to the front and leading laps."

It looked at the time that the No. 11 and the No. 24 were the cars to beat. And that was the feeling of the drivers behind the wheel, as well.

"At one time I thought we had the car to beat, but on the long, long runs, Denny was a little bit better than us," Gordon said. "Other than that, I thought we were the car. And then the last couple of runs, we made adjustments that just didn't seem to work for us."

While Gordon lamented losing the handling on his car, Hamlin's inability to get back to the lead came down to his restart position.

"Whoever starts on the inside line goes forward and whoever is on the outside goes backwards," Hamlin said. "We thought it was a blessing that last stop when we beat [Gordon] out -- the pit crew did an amazing job. [But] it was the dagger for us, because then it put us on the outside line with those guys that stayed out. We just needed to start on the bottom one or two of those restarts, and we would have been fine."

Gigantic high-banked Talladega and tiny, flat Martinsville would seem to have nothing in common. But as Gordon and Hamlin can attest, both are tracks where much of what happens is outside of your control and the fastest car doesn't always win.

At one point, Hamlin was about to put eventual winner Tony Stewart a lap down. Instead, Stewart was celebrating his victory on the frontstretch while Hamlin was considering the ramifications of his fifth-place finish.

"It feels great to be fast, to be competitive the way we were today," Hamlin said. "Every time I step into this car at Martinsville, [crew chief] Mike [Ford] and the guys have given me a car that I can win with. That's all I can ask for. Whether I come through with a win or not, sometimes we do, sometimes we don't."

And sometimes a top-five finish can feel like a win at Martinsville.

Watch: Gordon comments on 'absolutely crazy' race at Martinsville