FORT WORTH, Texas – Believe it, Denny Hamlin.
Even on his victory lap, Hamlin had trouble accepting that he won the Samsung Mobile 500 -- his second Monday victory in the last three races.
Hamlin started 29th, but jumped to 17th by the second caution on Lap 78. He was running among the top-10 competitors by Lap 100. On the last stop when leaders came to pit road after David Reutimann's engine blew on Lap 311, Hamlin entered fourth and exited third, directly behind Jeff Burton.
With Burton opting not to take tires, Hamlin was riding the tail of the No. 31 and was well ahead of the wreck that was triggered two laps later when Carl Edwards made contact with Tony Stewart, who collected Jeff Gordon and six additional cars.
Following a 20-minute delay, Hamlin restarted second and easily passed Burton on that restart to lead the final 12 laps of the race.
"I was going to crash or I was going to win on that restart," Hamlin admits.
So why the surprise from Hamlin following the win? Despite still rehabbing his bum knee, truth be told, Hamlin simply isn't confident about the end game.
"I'm not good at shootouts," Hamlin said. "I'm not good at those last few laps. Any time we have a green-white-checker or those kind of finishes, I'm usually on the bad end of it. I'll get into a wreck or lose a few spots.
"So for us to pull out a win like that, it's gratifying from my standpoint. You have a red-flag situation where you sit there and digest things and think about, 'What do I have to do for the first two laps to win this race?'"
Hamlin had reason for concern. Despite taking Burton and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch three-wide to take the lead, Jimmie Johnson, who finished second with four fresh tires, was closing fast.
"Maybe with one more lap, I could have been alongside the 11 and had a victory today," Johnson said.
Hamlin knows the finish -- a mere 0.152-seconds -- was close.
"A lot of that was because I really backed off the tempo (with) about five to go just to make sure I hit my marks and didn't make mistakes," Hamlin said. "So the finish was closer than what it should have been. But for me it was gratifying that I put the strategy together in my head and executed it, because usually I don't do that very well."
Kyle Busch finished third, followed by Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne. Johnson extended his points lead by 108 markers over Matt Kenseth, who was sixth on the final restart but blew a tire in the closing laps and finished 20th.
Following the win, Hamlin's crew chief Mike Ford joked that the No. 11 team won with a "one legged driver, one-eyed spotter and a half-brained crew chief." And Hamlin admits he feels closer to 60 percent than 100.
Three weeks after ACL surgery, Hamlin says it's still difficult to make a full rotation on an exercise bike.
But he's far from conceding the championship with 28 races remaining. Since Bristol, Hamlin has climbed from 19th in the points standings to 11th. Monday's victory alone vaulted Hamlin seven positions.
"I knew the next month it was going to be tougher to get good finishes than what it would pre-surgery," Hamlin said. "But I did this for September. I knew if I did it now, come Chase time, if I'm lucky enough to be in one of those top 12 positions, it was going to make me more prepared to make a run for the championship at that time.
"Obviously, a win like today makes you feel a little bit better. Gives you a little bit of confidence from here on out. We're still a good month away from getting back where I was."
Here and Now
David Reutimann has been offered a contract extension from Michael Waltrip Racing to continue driving the No. 00 Toyota.
Reutimann, who has struggled this season with three engine failures - including Monday at Texas - says he's been more interested in turning this season around rather than concentrating on the future.
"This is my last year," said Reutimann of his contract. "I haven't talked to anyone else. The only people I've talked to is our own team. I really haven't put the focus on what's happening next year like I should because we've had a terrible start to the season."
And Reutimann, 40, was hoping for a turnaround at Texas - the track he considers his favorite on the NASCAR tour. Despite running in the top 10 for most of the race, Reutimann's engine blew up with 23 laps remaining. He was in sixth-place at the time.
"That's about as frustrating as it gets," said Reutimann, who was on course for his second top 10 of the season.. We had a great car all day and ran with the leaders and we have a problem with 30 laps to go and can't finish the race.
"That unfortunately has been the story of our season so far. I don't know what we need to do to turn it around, but this is getting old. We've had some good finishes go up in smoke ... literally."
Reutimann was 25th in the point standings entering Texas. Following his 37th-place finish, Reutimann dropped to 30th.
Do you see what I see?
Michael Waltrip Racing's Ty Norris was entertaining representatives from Budweiser this weekend at Texas. Norris has a history with Budweiser dating back to his Dale Earnhardt Inc. days when Budweiser was sponsoring the No. 8 Chevrolet. With Kasey Kahne parting ways wih Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of the season, it's likely that Budweiser will be entertaining offers.
Monday's 0.152-second margin of victory was the closest race at Texas since Elliott Sadler beat Kasey Kahne by 0.028-seconds in this race in 2004. Monday's 29 lead changes ties the Cup record set in 2000. The top five drivers in the point standing remained the same after Texas. Hamlin's seven-position gain was the greatest among competitors. Clint Bowyer dropped eight positions following a right rear flat on Lap 118 and consequently being collected in the nine car wreck on Lap 318. With his win in Monday's rain-delayed Nationwide Series race at Texas, Kyle Busch is part of an elite group of drivers that have won five straight Nationwide Series races at one racetrack. Jack Ingram and Dale Earnhardt pulled off similar feats at South Boston Speedway and Daytona International Speedway, respectively. Say what?
Clint Bowyer after his race ended on Lap 318:
"We're supposed to have the big one next week, right?"