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Columns/Non-Daily
Third Place
Jeff Gluck, NASCAR Scene

RIDING ON EMOTION HELPS HAMLIN PUSH HIS PERFORMANCE TO NEW HEIGHTS

Though Thelma Clark’s sight grew ever dimmer and her hearing gradually faded away, Denny Hamlin always knew his grandmother’s love would never diminish.

On Sunday afternoons when her grandson raced at some distant venue, Clark would park herself just inches from her 30-inch TV and wait for the cameras to show Hamlin’s No. 11 car roaring around the track.

She’d don her No. 11 FedEx socks and keep a stuffed No. 11 FedEx bear close by. And she’d offer a prayer to St. Jude, hoping it would help her grandson reach victory lane.

Clark passed away at the age of 91 just days before the Pocono race. For the first time, she wasn’t watching her grandson race on TV.

But Hamlin was certain she was watching from somewhere.

Hamlin paid tribute to one of his biggest fans by winning the rain-delayed Pocono race, thanks to an inexplicable surge of confidence from a driver who always feels bad luck awaits him around the next turn.

Hamlin simply refused to stay in line. He seemed to have a car that could pass.
Or perhaps more accurately, his car seemed to have a driver who could.

“In a sport where everyone runs the same speed, for the most part,” Hamlin observed, “evidently confidence means more than what we thought.”

Hamlin has always been a points-racer, which explains his penchant for reeling off top-five finishes but not victories. Give Hamlin a top-five car and he’ll likely finish there, but won’t necessarily push it for the win.

That simply isn’t Hamlin’s style, which is why no one confuses him with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch (three wins this year).

On the other hand, it may help explain why Hamlin is fifth in points and Busch is 13th.

“I do the more conservative approach because that’s what this points system is based off of – consistency,” Hamlin said. “That’s why we’re at where we’re at.”

But Hamlin threw his usual mindset out the window at Pocono, where he swept the two 500-mile races in 2006 as a rookie. This time, he just knew his grandmother was with him every lap, every turn.

He went into a zone like no other and said “only half of me was driving the car most of the time.”

It had been 50 races since Hamlin last won – at Martinsville in the spring of 2008 – though it felt much longer. There had been so many close calls since then, so many heartbreaks after Hamlin had dominated races and come tantalizingly close to taking home the trophy.

“I found myself over the last few months starting to think, ‘Man, I’m only racing for second when I show up,’” he said. “That’s no way to be.”

Pocono was different. Every single lap, Hamlin said, the emotion was there. It never left. And when he crossed the finish line, he told his team there was an angel who was riding on board.

But Hamlin’s burst begs the question: Now that he’s shown that added emotion and confidence can translate into speed, will he go hard every week?

“A lot of people are going to say, ‘Just drive hard like that every week,’” he said. “And it’s hard to do. If you do that, you open yourself to a window of error that could really cost you.

“Many, many times, I nearly wrecked. It was just emotion, trying to get everything I could get. … It paid off today; but next week, we might end up on a hook with 20 laps to go.”

NASCAR would be wise to offer even more incentive for drivers to race like Hamlin did at Pocono. Such emotional runs are what the sport needs and the fans crave. Even if it’s a 50-point Chase bonus instead of 10, it would seem worth it to have more days like the one NASCAR enjoyed at Pocono, a track which has historically offered some of the least entertaining racing on the circuit.

Just when you think these drivers can’t push themselves any further, just when you think they’re getting all they can out of these stubborn cars, along comes Hamlin to prove they can.

When it came to honoring his grandmother’s memory, he simply found an extra gear.

“Today,” Hamlin said, voice wavering, “she’s pretty proud.”

CUP TEAMS SHOULD STOP RECYCLING MEDIOCRE DRIVERS

Did you see last week where Clint Bowyer was a guest on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser?” That shocked me. If there was going to be a Richard Childress Racing driver on “The Biggest Loser,” I would have thought it would be Casey Mears.

OK, so maybe that’s a little harsh. But seriously, when has Mears done anything – anything – to warrant the numerous chances he’s received?

Meanwhile, some drivers have made the best of their opportunities (AJ Allmendinger, David Gilliland) or shown promise (Regan Smith) but have toiled in lesser rides while trying just to get half the chances given to Mears.

It doesn’t seem fair, really. But that’s the reality of NASCAR these days, where there isn’t enough sponsor money to go around. Teams hire retreads instead of taking a chance on drivers with potential.

Mears is the greatest example of this. In 221 career Cup starts, he has won one time – a fuel-mileage-aided victory at Charlotte two years ago.

He has 12 top-five finishes – in his entire career. Six drivers had 12 or more top-fives last season alone.

And he’s done this while driving for Chip Ganassi Racing (decent equipment), Hendrick Motorsports (the best equipment) and now RCR (Chase-caliber equipment).

Heading into Martinsville, Mears ranked 25th in the standings with the same No. 07 team that helped Clint Bowyer finish third and fifth in points the last two seasons, respectively.

That’s no different from last year, when Mears took over Kyle Busch’s old No. 5 team at Hendrick and sunk it from fifth to 20th in points. Busch had 11 top-five finishes in his final year with the team; then Mears got in the car and recorded just one.

I could go on, but by now you should have gotten the point: Mears is not an elite driver. He seems to be a very nice guy, but then again, so was J.J. Yeley.
That’s not to pick on Mears alone. He’s joined by fellow perennial disappointments Jamie McMurray and Reed Sorenson – drivers who always tease us with what seems to be potential for a solid season in a good ride, then ultimately let us down.

The truth is, some guys just don’t have it. So here’s an idea: Instead of recycling underachieving drivers and giving them even more chances, teams should take a look at someone new.

It sounds so obvious, but yet car owners and sponsors fall into the same trap over and over.

Wouldn’t you love to see how the exciting Allmendinger would do in a full season with Bowyer’s old Chase team? Or see if Smith could follow up his Rookie of the Year campaign in a full-time ride with good equipment?

At least Allmendinger has gotten a chance with Richard Petty Motorsports, though he still hasn’t secured funding to run past May. Smith has only gotten to make two starts this season with Furniture Row Racing, but has averaged a 20th-place finish – better than Mears, McMurray and Sorenson.

Gilliland, forced to drive conservatively for TRG Motorsports, which only had two cars in its shop for most of the season, got his underfunded car into the top 35 in owner points despite missing the Daytona 500.

It’s highly questionable whether Mears, McMurray or Sorenson would have done that.

Maybe the car owners feel their hands are tied by sponsors who want a “name” and not an unproven youngster. If that’s the case, the teams aren’t doing a very good job expressing themselves.

Here’s the sales pitch: Would you rather have a mediocre driver who finishes 22nd every week (which just so happens to be Mears’ average finish through the first five races this year and his career) or a driver who has potential to grow into the next Carl Edwards?

In a perfect world, drivers such as Smith, Allmendinger or Michael McDowell would get three years to prove themselves in solid equipment. If they didn’t make it, we could all move on.

But when drivers lose their rides after one or two seasons, there’s no time to develop or grow. It’s a shame that other drivers who have had plenty of time to prove themselves – and failed – continue to stick around.

On that note, maybe it’s not Mears who should have been on “The Biggest Loser” – it’s the sponsors and teams who continue to water down NASCAR’s talent pool with drivers who simply aren’t deserving of their rides.

NOTHING LEFT TO SAY FOR BUSCH

There was nothing left to say. Kyle Busch did not run or duck or bolt from the questions about his failure to make the Chase, nor did he try to evade the reality: Despite winning four races this season – tied for the series lead – he was not eligible to run for the Sprint Cup title.

He forced a few smiles and dealt with the situation as best he could, finally acting like a champion on a night when he was denied the opportunity to become one.

With all his interviews concluded, Busch left the media center with two of his representatives and walked – without a word to anyone – toward the Sprint Cup Series garage. No passersby said anything, and Busch interacted with no one.

Busch’s right foot slipped in a puddle, but he regained his footing and continued. He went through the side door of his hauler and changed out of his firesuit, emerging silently wearing a brown M&M’s jacket over a red shirt, jeans and a white sponsor hat.

There were no pats on the back or shakes of the head. His representatives fell in step with him as they headed toward the exit of the garage, and as they approached, a golf cart slowly inched out of its parking space like a getaway car waiting to make its escape.

On the back was Busch’s girlfriend, Samantha Sarcinella, who shot him a sorrowful look. Busch’s facial expression nor his body language revealed anything, and he hopped in the front seat. The cart drove off into the darkness, likely headed for a motorhome to pick up his two dogs, Kelly and Suzie, then for the helipad, the airport and home.

It was a short flight back to Charlotte, but it’s not hard to imagine the flight gave Busch time to start wondering where he went wrong. He’s been NASCAR’s biggest winner over the past two years, yet has no championship in any series to show for it.

Busch missed the Chase by a mere eight points – the same margin by which his older brother, Kurt, won the 2004 Cup championship. Eight points can mean a variety of things, but it ultimately came down to this: Had Busch gained one more spot and Brian Vickers lost one more, Vickers would have been out and Busch would have been in, tied for the points lead heading into the final 10 races.

Instead of being the top seed, he’s not seeded at all. The kid whose aggression has earned him a reputation as a driver who always goes for the win may have been hurt by the very thing that makes him so special.

No matter how you want to spin it – with bonus points or resetting the field – NASCAR still rewards consistency over everything else. Wins take a backseat to points racing, which is why Busch has more victories than seven drivers in the playoff field combined yet is not part of the group himself.

Every week, fans and media complain that drivers don’t do enough to go for wins. Along comes a driver such as Busch whose aggressive style leaves him in position for more wins than anyone, yet he’s not consistent enough under NASCAR’s point system to be a championship contender.

Rarely does Busch settle for a position like a points racer would. If the opportunity is there, he goes for it.

Where did that get him? On a golf cart disappearing into the night as the Chase drivers celebrated on the frontstretch.

NASCAR should tweak the points system to celebrate drivers such as Busch, not send them home. A four-time winner deserves to be in the playoffs more than someone who hasn’t won at all.

Busch refused to blame just one race – or even several – and said his failure was the result of “a slew of bad races.”

“Unfortunately, some days I didn’t do my best, and we didn’t have the best cars or whatever it might have been,” he said. “What it boils down to is, we missed.”

And make no mistake: He not only missed, but will be missed. The large and passionate anti-Kyle fan base loves to see him fail, thrives on watching the driver they loathe meet his latest misfortune. Yet without NASCAR’s villain in the Chase, their favorite target becomes somewhat less appealing.

“I’m not a Kyle fan, but I’m shocked at how disappointed I feel that he’s not in the Chase,” a user named Spunk72 wrote on Twitter. “I don’t even know what to say.”

On a night when NASCAR’s most polarizing and interesting driver missed the Chase, there was nothing left to say.

MARTIN’S POPULAR WIN IS A VICTORY FOR EVERYONE

Nobody left. The flashbulbs lit up like thousands of fireflies in the desert sky, fans rushed to the catchfence instead of to the parking lots and cheered as Mark Martin drove by on his victory lap.

Nobody went home unhappy. Martin’s win was the kind that made you feel so good about what you’d just seen, you felt good about yourself.

Nobody could stop smiling. Fans high-fived and hugged; crewmen from other teams stood on pit road to salute Martin as he drove by; other drivers paraded to victory lane to shake Martin’s hand.

There are popular victories, and then there are the wins that are unanimously approved by people in every facet of NASCAR.

This was one of them.

Why? Because Mark Martin is the Sara Lee of NASCAR: Nobody doesn’t like him.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that’s not a Mark Martin fan,” said Tony Stewart, who seemed almost pleased to finish second to Martin. “There’s nobody who dislikes Mark.”

Martin is a man with the stature of a horse jockey and the muscles of a bodybuilder; a man who has your grandpa’s wrinkles and your first-grade teacher’s gentle kindness.

He is loved and cherished by people both inside the garage and out.

Drivers like him because they view him as the model for how to race cleanly and respectfully, because he treats others how they want to be treated, because he’s genuine.

In an informal poll last year, drivers chose Martin as the nicest guy in the garage.

“Mark’s enthusiasm, his energy, his drive – he has more drive than any other person I’ve probably met in my life – makes up for any other shortcomings that he may have,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said, “which are very, very, very few – if any at all.”

Outside the garage, fans and reporters appreciate Martin because his attributes and values are ones with which we all can identify: Hard work and persistence; conducting oneself with class; doing things the right way.

And many of us look at Martin’s career path as a reflection of our own lives, from finding success but falling short of the ultimate prize to dealing with immense disappointment and heartbreak but continuing to move forward, refusing to give up.

Martin’s win grabbed headlines because at age 50, he became the third-oldest driver ever to win a NASCAR race. But that’s not why he’s so celebrated; if he were a 50-year-old jerk, fans likely wouldn’t care as much.

His biggest failings are well known: Never won the championship; never won the Daytona 500; flip-flopped after he said he was retiring several years ago.

On the topic of popularity, he won’t beat out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for this year’s most popular driver award. But here’s the thing: While not everyone is a Dale Jr. fan, it’s likely you pull for Martin no matter who your favorite driver is.

When he wins, we all win. Everyone wins.

You’ve heard of America’s Team? Martin is America’s Driver.

Not since July 2001, when Earnhardt Jr. won at Daytona after returning there for the first time since his father’s death, has a victory been such a feel-good story.

And right now, in the face of a brutal economy, dwindling TV ratings and a general lack of excitement, Martin’s win was exactly what the sport needed.

Naturally, the next step would be to dream of more. Will Martin, now in 13th place, make the Chase? And can he actually contend for a championship?

A Martin Cup title after all these years would be one of the greatest stories in NASCAR history. But Martin won’t let himself even think about such things yet, and perhaps neither should we.

In the meantime, appreciating what happened on a pleasant evening in Phoenix should be good enough.

“It’s cool,” Martin said, smiling like it was his first win. “It’s a cool night.”

For everyone.