A week ago, it seemed improbable that Denny Hamlin could even race.
Fresh off knee surgery to repair his torn ACL, Hamlin gingerly climbed into his car at Phoenix and gutted out the full distance, despite the intense pain.
If he didn't give up on his team, he figured, maybe they wouldn't give up on him.
"I did it for team morale," he said. "I knew they would give their left leg for me, and I was willing to do the same for them."
It was a decision that appears to have paid immediate dividends.
The one-legged wonder won the Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday afternoon, barely holding off a charging Jimmie Johnson at the finish line.
Johnson likely needed just one more lap to catch and pass Hamlin with fresher tires, but Hamlin beat him by one-tenth of a second as Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top five.
Hamlin can barely do a single revolution on a stationary bike, but had no problem with celebratory burnouts in front of a surprisingly large crowd at Texas.
"This was a statement race for us," he said.
Mark Martin stole a sixth-place finish after running in the 20s all day, followed by Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who challenged for the win but ultimately fell back to eighth.
Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle completed the top 10.
Aside from Hamlin's win, the race was particularly notable for two reasons: A midrace clash between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon, in which they slammed into one another and later exchanged shots in the media; and a nine-car wreck on the frontstretch that ended the days of Gordon and pole-sitter Tony Stewart, among others.
Yes, it was another disappointment for Gordon, who has now gone a year without winning. He led a race-high 124 laps and seemed to have an outstanding car all day, but his race was ruined with just 17 laps to go.
"Man, what a race car," Gordon said. "Gosh, what a race car we had. That is what I am bummed out the most about."
A mellow Stewart took blame for the incident, saying "I started it. ... It's definitely my fault. Apologize to all the teams and drivers."
As for the incident with Johnson, Gordon said he was "disappointed" with Johnson, but said the two would talk about it.
"He wasn't fast enough and my car was just so good, I could get right to his bumper, and he got loose," Gordon said. "I guess he thought I was being too aggressive. He just drove into my door."
Johnson, told of Gordon's remark, said he was "pretty disappointed with him today as well."
But he urged reporters not to read too much into the disagreement, saying that the two teammates have had issues before and been displeased with how they raced each other.
"Don't get the headline writers out saying 'Trouble at HMS,'" Johnson said. "it's really no big deal."
Johnson increased his points lead over Matt Kenseth to 108, eight races into the season. Kurt Busch, Martin and Hamlin all got themselves back into the top 12 while Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards fell out.
The top 12 in points and other notables:
- Jimmie Johnson
- Matt Kenseth (-108)
- Greg Biffle (-128)
- Kevin Harvick (-141)
- Jeff Gordon (-220)
- Kyle Busch (-228)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-235)
- Jeff Burton (-243)
- Kurt Busch (-249)
- Mark Martin (-254)
- Denny Hamlin (-275)
- Joey Logano (-307)