LONG POND - A hundred yards, Denny Hamlin estimates. He was 100 yards from relief. After this 500-mile odyssey, he was moments from seeing the white flag.
One thing. Behind him, an accident broke out. One of NASCAR's fastest-rising feuds boiled over. The caution flag flared up instead. And yesterday's Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 at Pocono Raceway headed to a two-lap restart. With one final surge, Hamlin pulled away from Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart to win.
No, nothing was handed to Hamlin.
"I like winning this way," Hamlin said. "You're not just walking away from it. You're earning it."
Through a 2-hour rain delay and a race jam-packed with drama at the end, Hamlin positioned himself well in the Sprint Cup Series. Two weeks after a nasty confrontation with Busch, he's nipping at Busch's heels in the standings. Currently, he is third. Yesterday marks his fourth win of the season - albeit in thrilling fashion.
The race was forced to go extra laps when Kevin Harvick nudged Joey Logano on the final lap. Logano, the 20-year-old, fishtailed out of contention, eventually finishing 13th. Harvick, the Sprint Cup points leader, took fourth.
Then, for the first time in Logano's young career . . . fireworks. The typically mellow Logano had enough.
Immediately after the race, Logano drove to Harvick's camp for a chat. Screaming and pointing his finger, Logano was shielded by Harvick's crew. The two never met face to face. Their problems date back to the Nationwide Series Scott's Turf Builder 300 on March 20 at Bristol when Harvick used a similar maneuver on the final lap.
Logano, the 2009 Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, is at a loss for words. He has no idea why Harvick seems to be headhunting him.
"I don't know what his problem is with me but it's probably not his fault," Logano said sarcastically. "His wife wears the fire suit in the family and tells him what to do."
It appears to be a veteran message to the youngster. To Harvick, it's a matter of etiquette.
"He just races with not giving any respect and much room," Harvick said. "So, we just wound up together. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is."
Either way, the skirmish never affected Hamlin. While he led for 88 of the 204 laps, he needed to make up a lot of ground in a hurry. With 30 laps to go, Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota was in 15th place. Savoring fuel, he caught up.
This time, there would be no drama on his end. With a multicar collision in his wake, including Kasey Kahne's vehicle going airborne, Hamlin topped a foe of his own. Two weeks ago, Hamlin knocked Busch out of the Sprint Cup All-Star race in Charlotte. Busch wrecked, unleashed a tirade of expletives and said he was going to "kill" Hamlin.
For now, it appears the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates are content keeping their distance from one another. And for Hamlin, the win further vindicates a tough decision he made in late March.
Just over 2 months ago, Hamlin had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury suffered while playing basketball in January. He could have waited until after the season. But rather than risk further damage, he had it repaired. The knee still bothers him at times, but it's nothing he can't deal with.
For Hamlin, it helped him catch fire. Working with trainers daily, he's still able to race.
Sure beats the alternative of racing cautiously with a torn ACL.
"I'm glad I didn't wait," Hamlin said. "Obviously had some great doctors, great people working with me in rehabilitation."
Hamlin is thankful Gibbs' team didn't give him too much flak for playing basketball in his off time. He knows they could have, but he said it's important to have hobbies outside of racing.
So Hamlin, an avid basketball fan, sealed the deal at Pocono in overtime. The bad luck from that pickup basketball game appeared to resurface on the final straightaway. But, in two laps, he held off Stewart and Busch to win.
He can laugh about the comedy in the wild finish now.
"There's no way they switch flags that quick," Hamlin said, smiling. "I think they had it, were ready to go with the yellow."