AVONDALE, Ariz. — For Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb, the smiles were impossible to hide.
In their second race together, Hamlin drove his Toyota to victory over Kevin Harvick in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway, vanquishing some personal ghosts while giving his new crew chief another reason to look forward rather than back.
It was on the same track in November, 2010 that Hamlin’s quest for the Sprint Cup championship began to unravel and, with it, his confidence.
For Grubb, replaced as crew chief on Tony Stewart’s car after winning the points championship last November, it was a sweet way to start with his new team.
“The communication has still got a long way to go … but to have the success this early just tells me that once we get things down pat, it’s going to be pretty good,” Hamlin said.
Grubb, who continually adjusted Hamlin’s car so that it was strong enough to lead the final 59 laps and stretch the fuel just far enough, couldn’t deny the satisfaction that came with Hamlin’s 18th career victory but first with Grubb.
“I guess you could say it was a little bit of vindication,” Grubb said. “But I really don’t think that way. I try to just take the high road all the time. I feel like I came into a very good situation.”
Historically a slow starter, Hamlin took the Sprint Cup points lead by six over third-place finisher Greg Biffle and by eight over Harvick.
In a race dominated at different times by Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Harvick and, finally, Hamlin, fuel mileage played a critical role.
On a restart at Lap 253, Hamlin went to the front and never surrendered the lead, gradually pulling away from Harvick and Biffle. Maintaining a one-second advantage over much of the final 20 laps, Hamlin was forced to contend with Harvick who surged toward him with three laps remaining, briefly pulling within a few car lengths of Hamlin with less than two laps remaining.
However, Harvick suddenly fell back as his fuel went away. Harvick said he didn’t think he could have gotten around Hamlin anyway.
“Our cars were pretty evenly matched,” Harvick said. “The whole second half of the race, he was a little bit better on restarts and was able to scoot by on the one restart there.
“We were able to match him, make up a little bit of ground … I don’t know that there would have been enough time.”
For Hamlin, the victory came not far from where he rented a home over the winter to escape the Charlotte area where the racing business is never far away. He spent time in the Scottsdale area, played golf and cleared his mind.
What began coming apart near the end of the Chase in 2010 — the image of Hamlin throwing his water bottle in frustration came to symbolize his struggles then — led to a disappointing 2011.
Hamlin won just once last year and had only five top-five finishes after 29 top-fives in the previous two years.
Arriving at Daytona, where he led the most laps in the 500, Hamlin was eager to get started.
“You hear the good and the bad about not being around the race team for two months…but that’s what I needed to improve myself,” Hamlin said. “I was just as weak a link as anyone last year within our program.
“What I needed to do to make myself better is what I did and that was just get away and not even think about racing for a while. But when it came time to get to the race track, my focus is solely on winning races and winning a championship and I’ll do anything it takes to do that.”