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MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin's left knee -- the one that will undergo reconstructive surgery Wednesday -- was a bit numb as he prepared for a green-white-checkered finish in fourth place Monday afternoon at Martinsville Speedway.
Fortunately, he had four good wheels under him.
And he had an unbelievable desire to put what has been a horrific start to the 2010 season behind him.
The Virginia native pushed to a slam-bam victory that left him feeling no pain and those behind realizing the preseason choice of many to succeed four-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is far from done.
"This was probably the most gratifying win I've had simply because we came through adversity so many times, whether it be because of pit road or that dash at the end," Hamlin said after winning his second straight race at a track he calls home.
"We just flat-out drove through 'em at the end and got the win. I'm not sure we've gotten a win like this before."
This was a statement race for Hamlin, who hadn't finished better than 17th in the first five contests of the season.
He let the world know that despite a bad knee, despite a rough start to the season in which blown tires in three of the first five races left him 19th in points, and despite getting knocked to ninth late in this race because of pit strategy, nothing was going to deny him.
He pushed and shoved his way first past Ryan Newman, then Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon -- all were on old tires -- and pulled away for the victory that he felt belonged to him anyway on a day in which he led a race-high 172 laps.
"Four tires were definitely big for us," he said. "You know, it would have been hard to not win this race as good as what our car was. Obviously, with the point position that we were in, we needed to make up some and get some bonus points for the Chase."[Johnson] is going to be hard enough to beat on a level playing field in the Chase. But you start to give him 80 more bonus points, 60 more bonus points, going into it, that's one bad race he gets for free," he added, referring to the 10-point bonus each driver receives per race victory when the points are reset entering the Chase. "So you've got to kind of manage that, make sure you stay close to him."
Johnson, who won three of the first five races, took the points lead after finishing ninth at a track where he has won six times. Hamlin improved four spots to 15th and moved within 24 points of the top 12 that qualify for the Chase.
That's close enough after all his Joe Gibbs Racing team has endured.
"I feel like we haven't even gotten a chance to show what we have yet through the course of this year," Hamlin said. "Atlanta, we could have won that race. Bristol, we never really got to show what we had before we cut a tire."
Everybody saw what Hamlin had in this race delayed a day because of rain. The disappointing part is nobody got to see what he had at the end for Jeff Burton, the only driver able to keep up with the No. 11 on a level playing field.
Burton, who led 140 laps, blew a right-front tire with seven laps remaining that put Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford behind the strategic eight ball.
"I would have loved to race Jeff for the win there at the end," Hamlin said. "That was one of the best cars I've seen at Martinsville for a while, other than ourselves."
|Popular preseason pick Denny Hamlin finally found his way to Victory Lane on Monday at Martinsville.|
Instead, it appeared Hamlin would be racing for a top-5 finish instead of the win. When he and second-place teammate Kyle Busch pitted for four tires, most of those directly behind them stayed out. That moved Gordon into the lead and seemingly in position to win until Busch and Paul Menard wrecked with Gordon 100 yards from the white flag.
Hamlin had moved to fourth by then, but he still needed a perfect storm on a weekend hampered by storms to get the win.
That happened when Kenseth got into Gordon, knocking the Hendrick Motorsports driver high up the track and allowing Hamlin to push his way low in front of teammate Joey Logano for the lead.
Gordon wasn't happy, intentionally pushing Kenseth into the wall to assure "he didn't win the race." Whether that will lead to issues or apologies down the road remains to be seen, although both drivers were pretty fired up afterward.
Hamlin was apologizing to no one. He was ecstatic, using his injured left leg to hold down the brake and perform a burnout that filled the air with more smoke than there were clouds five hours earlier.
"The car is beat to hell, I can tell you that," Hamlin said with a smile.
But Hamlin's confidence, ego or whatever you want to call it was in perfect shape. The frustration he felt three weeks ago, when he wondered whether JGR was at a slight competitive disadvantage in the engine department and a week ago after another blown tire cost him a good finish, was gone.
Not that he was lacking for confidence before the race.
"I told Mike during practice on Saturday there was no doubt we were going to win this race," Hamlin said. "I didn't think it was going to be this hard or dramatic at the end. Nonetheless, it's a good feeling."
It's a feeling Hamlin will carry throughout the surgery that doctors say should not keep him out of the next race at Phoenix in two weeks. It's a feeling that gives him the confidence to know he has the equipment to match his talent and compete with Johnson for the championship.
"Yeah, usually this is where we start turning it up," said Hamlin, traditionally a slow starter. "I don't see that bar that's going up going down anytime soon."
There's no reason for anybody to expect that.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.