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BROOKLYN, Mich. - Before the start of the 2010 Sprint Cup schedule, Denny Hamlin was informally knighted as the guy most likely to unseat four-time champion Jimmie Johnson. A serious knee injury in a pickup basketball game in January radically changed that projection and put Hamlin's entire season in doubt.
He first tried to postpone the needed surgery, while there were grim projections about his ability to withstand the rigors and physical demands of the long races while in rehab. The knee refused to cooperate, so late in March Hamlin let the doctors do their work, and he has been about his ever since.
Hamlin dominated the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 yesterday, pulling away from the field several times at Michigan International Speedway for his fifth win of the season. It appears that his knee is fine, his accelerator foot strong, and we can only surmise that his jump shot remains solid.
"I didn't think that we would have the kind of success we're having, so soon," said Hamlin, who never missed a race despite going under the knife six events into the season.
"The pain level was so bad that I just didn't know. It was unbearable. But now, it seems like the healthier I get, the more I can concentrate on the race car."
Hamlin, who also won last week at Pocono, was in a league of his own yesterday at MIS. He led pole-sitter Kurt Busch by more than three seconds 75 laps into the race, fell back momentarily when a fuel pressure problem hit, and then moved quickly back to the lead. Other than a couple of times when the field cycled through the pits, Hamlin was untouchable. His lead was more than five seconds with 50 laps left and pushing 10 seconds with 35 laps to go.
"Even though it looked strong, it is not as easy as it looked today," Hamlin said. "We just did everything we were supposed to do to win. We've worked very, very hard to get to where we are."
Kurt Busch sparred with Hamlin at times and led for 60 laps, mostly through the first half of the race, but he readily admitted that Hamlin's FedEx Ground No. 11 Toyota was the clear class of the field.
"This is a track that will test you in all areas, and that's why when one guy figures it out, they just pull away," Busch said. "If you miss by just a little bit, somebody's going to blow by you. We felt like we had things going our way. But as the race progressed, other guys got better than us. That's what this game is about."
When the fourth and final caution of the race came out with just 14 laps to go, Hamlin was able to hold off runner-up Kasey Kahne in the restart and then pull away a last time and win by 1.246 seconds.
"Anything can happen," Hamlin said about the battle with Kahne. "I knew a caution was coming out. We've got to do what's right for the fans and they need to see a great race at the end. The best car won and that's all you can ask for."
Kahne, who is without a win this season and stuck deep in the points standings, led the five Fords that finished in the top 12. Kahne led just six laps, but was in contention throughout the afternoon.
"We stayed up front and kind of did what we wanted and did what we could all day, but Denny was just a little better at the end," Kahne said. "It was nice to put a full race together and actually feel like a Cup team. I didn't like watching Denny drive away from me, but I wasn't surprised when he did. We had a terrific effort, but the No. 11 car was just a touch better."
Hamlin said he had plenty of opportunities to consider the challenges that laid ahead during his rehabilitation, when he spent most of his time away from the track resting his knee.
"Sitting on the couch for weeks on end makes you think," he said. "I was determined to come back strong, and I think it made me focus more on what we needed to do to improve. It's funny, but it seems like the more success we get, the hungrier it makes me. It's in my blood."
Hamlin said his team had been inconsistent with its performance through the rounds of practice earlier in the weekend at MIS, but found all of the answers it was looking for by the time the race was 50 laps old.
"We just bounced back and forth with stuff with the car, but we knew once the green flag dropped we'd have a car we could race with," he said. "And when we got out front, it was amazingly fast. It was just a flawless day for our race team."
Hamlin, whose five wins and seven top five finishes lead the Sprint Cup drivers, said he can't take the credit for the dramatic recovery he has made.
"I just find myself thinking in the middle of the race that it is just unbelievable how good we are this year," he said. "But it's not just myself - it's a team effort."
Spoken like the semi-retired basketball player Hamlin's race crew hopes he is.
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Following serious surgery, it appears that Denny Hamlin's knee is fine, his accelerator foot strong, and we can only surmise that his jump shot remains solid.