Hamlin overcomes grief to win NASCAR race at Pocono Raceway
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.