by Lindsay Gibbs
, Featured Columnist
|Throughout the 2015 Sprint Cup season, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson have been the two drivers to beat week in and week out. But at the Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday night, the rest of the field received this very clear message: Don't forget about Denny Hamlin.|
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota earned his first All-Star victory in Charlotte, and he managed to deliver his owner Joe Gibbs his first All-Star win in 24 races. Hamlin also received a $1 million check to commemorate the occasion.
Not a bad day of work.
After finishing third in the Chase standings last year, the 34-year-old—who won earlier this season in Martinsville to all but secure himself a spot back in the Chase—is once again establishing himself as a serious challenger for the Sprint Cup title.
Of course, he didn't get there alone. The All-Star Race is specifically designed to be a team event, with pit stops coming into play in qualifying. There's no doubt that Hamlin's pit crew and crew chief were key components to his big win; his fellow drivers even sang their praises, including Kyle Larson:
Man @dennyhamlin pit crew won him that deal! Badass — Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) May 17, 2015
Lincoln Electric is a proud partner of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin started out the evening by winning the pole, thanks to his quick adjustment when he overshot his pit stop and his crew's flawless execution. That victory allowed him to grab the prime pit stall for the race, a piece of real estate that would wind up being crucial.
During the mandatory four-tire pit stop before the final 10-lap shootout, Hamlin's pit crew executed perfectly, and he was able to move from sixth place to first by winning the race off pit road. It helped that Brad Keselowski, who won two of the four 25-lap segments in the race, got a speeding penalty trying to beat Hamlin off pit road and had to start at the back of the pack.
Thanks to a spectacular (albeit slightly controversial) restart, Hamlin was able to hold off Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch for the remaining 10 laps. As Jeff Gluck of USA Today reported, winning this race was a dream come true, as Hamlin noted:
"You want to win the Daytona 500, you want to win the Brickyard, you want to win Coca-Cola 600 and you want to be an All-Star," Hamlin said after climbing from his No. 11 Toyota. "Just a big day. It's just an unbelievable experience. ... We just didn't have a car that could run with some of those guys. But that pit crew, man, what can I say, they got this for me, there's no doubt. Hopefully we start to get some speed here down the road."
Despite Hamlin's inconsistency this year in the points races—he has a win, three top-fives and six finishes outside of the top 20—this victory should launch him firmly into the conversation of top Chase challengers.
After all, Hamlin has proved to be one of the best drivers in the sport since he came to the Sprint Cup Series with Joe Gibbs Racing back in 2005. In his nine full seasons at this level, Hamlin has finished the year in the top five of the Chase standings four times and in the top 10 on seven occasions. Last year, he made it to the final race at Homestead, proving he can navigate this new Chase format with relative ease.
This year, he's looking like a dangerously complete driver and is right back in the mix. He is smart and strategic, and his ability to hold off Harvick at the end of Saturday's race showcased he has one of the best crews in NASCAR and he has a car with the speed to compete with the sport's elite drivers.
Now, a victory like this—which Hamlin tweeted was the "biggest win of his career"—could provide the confidence that propels him to a career-defining season.
NASCAR is filled with stars, and as the season goes on, you'll hear all about Kyle Busch's comeback, Jeff Gordon's swan song, Danica Patrick's race for sponsorship and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s, well, everything.
But with or without fanfare, it would be foolish to sleep on the No. 11 car. Saturday night proved one thing for sure: Hamlin is, now and forever, an All-Star.