AVONDALE, Ariz. — Denny Hamlin spent nearly two months of the off-season in the Scottsdale area, hoping to get away from racing for a while, reinvigorate himself for the 2012 season.
It seemed to do wonders, leading to a win at a place where he had one of the biggest disappointments of his career.
Hamlin pulled away when NASCAR’s best closer ran out of gas and then had to sweat out his own fuel mileage before completing a confidence-boosting win at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday.
“It’s a little bit of satisfaction there, for sure,” Hamlin said. “It’s a bittersweet track.”
It was, in fact, the site of one of his worst memories as a driver.
Hamlin seemed to have a comfortable lead over Jimmie Johnson in the penultimate race of the 2010 Chase when his title hopes were derailed by a fuel strategy that backfired. Forced to pit for fuel late in the race, he scrambled just to finish 19th while Johnson was fifth.
Hamlin left the desert dejected after his lead was trimmed to 15 points and ended up losing the title the next week to Johnson, who earned his record fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship.
Hamlin then had a bit of a hangover to start the 2011 season and never really clicked, ending up ninth in the Sprint Cup standings.
Hamlin came back strong to start this season, finishing fourth at the Daytona 500 with new crew chief Darian Grubb after qualifying 31st.
Hamlin started 13th at Phoenix and briefly led a couple of times before beating Kevin Harvick off the line after a caution with 59 laps left.
Harvick, NASCAR’s best finisher, put a scare into him toward the end, but ran out of gas on the final lap.
“When I come back here (and win), it puts 2011 to rest,” said Hamlin, who now leads the points standings. “It’s a year I’d soon like to forget and now we can focus on winning a championship.”