LONG POND, Pa. – Denny Hamlin had few bigger fans than his grandmother. She wore her No. 11 socks, held her No. 11 stuffed bear, and watched every race on TV – even as she sat and squinted only inches away from the 30-inch screen.
When Thelma Clark died last week at 91, there was a part of Hamlin that didn’t want to be at the track.
With a heavy heart, Hamlin came to Pocono Raceway and snapped a 50-race winless skid. He took the checkered flag at the Pennsylvania 500 on Monday and dedicated this victory to his grandmother.
“She understands the competition of the sport and she understands how much she means to me,” Hamlin said. “Like today, she’s pretty proud.”
Hamlin held off Juan Pablo Montoya over the final riveting laps, then choked up with grief in Victory Lane.
Hamlin won for the third time in eight career starts at the triangle track that has become his personal playground. He has had three other top 10s there in the No. 11 Toyota.
He was in tears following the emotional race, the victory coming three days after his grandmother’s death. There was a catch to his voice as he spoke, and he wiped his face with a towel before walking away for a subdued celebration.
“We definitely had some angels with us today,” Hamlin said.
This was Hamlin’s first victory since Martinsville Speedway in March 2008. He predicted victory and backed it up to strengthen his bid for a spot in the Chase for the championship.
Hamlin, who swept Pocono as a rookie in 2006, is fifth in points and the only JGR driver in the top 12.
“I told him earlier, we’re going to lobby for a few extra races at Pocono,” JGR president J.D. Gibbs said.
The race had been delayed a day because of rain. Usually not known as a track that produces exciting races, this one was wild and unpredictable almost from the start.
Clint Bowyer was third. Sam Hornish Jr. was fourth for his best finish in a Cup car, and Kasey Kahne was fifth.
“Things haven’t been going our way all year long so it feels good to have something swing our way,” Bowyer said.
Three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson battled an unruly car all day, falling three laps down and needing a carburetor change with 60 laps left before rebounding with a solid 13th-place finish. Johnson was scheduled to visit with President Barack Obama on Monday in honor of his 2008 Sprint Cup title.
Tony Stewart, who won Pocono in June, finished 10th and increased his points lead to 197 over Johnson.
Montoya rebounded nicely after the crushing disappointment of losing a victory last week at Indianapolis because of a pit road speeding penalty. Montoya insisted when he got to Pocono that he had moved on and kept his eye solely on the points standings. He went from 10th to eighth in the standings and is in good shape to make the Chase for the first time.
Montoya used the same No. 42 Chevrolet as last week.
“We brought it because it just ran good last week,” he said. “We thought, just bring it back.”
Bowyer, who wasn’t won in 47 races, moved up to 15th in the Chase standings. There are five races left before the 12-driver field is set for the 10-race sprint for the title.
Hamlin had a rare poor outing in the June race at Pocono because of a fuel pump problem that sent him to the garage after only two laps. He returned and finished 38th, but has been one of the hottest drivers over the last seven races.
Hamlin recorded four top fives over that span and did all he could to move up the standings – except win.
“I feel like we’re the best car other than the Hendrick cars,” Hamlin said.
The Hendrick cars were mostly out of the picture over the final laps, leaving a pack of drivers who haven’t contended for many checkered flags this year going for the win.
Montoya, Bowyer and Hornish are all winless, and Kahne has one victory.
Hamlin led 91 laps, but had fallen to 11th. He bumped David Reutimann with 25 laps left to bring out a caution.
Fuelled by emotion, Hamlin scrapped any ideas of a conservative approach for points and raced hard for the win. One member of Hamlin’s crew recently lost his mother, and the whole team was mourning. Hamlin couldn’t keep his emotions in check.
“Every lap. Every single lap it comes out,” Hamlin said. “When I got behind, it really started getting frustrating from my standpoint. I thought I was going to let it slip away with 50 to go.”
Not this time.
Not when he was driving for his family.
“I felt like this weekend I was going to have help in a lot of different places,” Hamlin said.