By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Pocono Raceway carries the moniker of the “Tricky Triangle” for a reason, with its three different corners and long straightaways giving even the most seasoned of drivers fits over the years, so when a rookie comes in and excels at the 2.5-mile track, it certainly turns some heads.
Back in 2006, Denny Hamlin, who was in his first full-time season in the NASCAR Cup Series behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet, showed the rest of the field how it’s done by winning not one, but both races held at the track that year.
Hamlin started the first Pocono race of the season, the Pocono 500, on the pole and led 49 of the first 50 laps before near disaster struck for the No. 11 team. A blown left-rear tire showered the track with debris and sent Hamlin for a spin, which he was able to recover from as he limped to pit road for repairs.
Dropping to the tail end of the field after his team patched the left-rear wheel well, Hamlin slowly but surely started working his way back toward the front, eventually taking over the lead once more with 24 laps remaining in the 200-lap race.
With less than 10 laps to go, the stress that Pocono’s long straightaways puts on the equipment finally became too much for the brakes on Jeff Gordon’s car, as his brakes failed at the end of the frontstretch, heading into Turn 1 at over 200 mph.
Gordon attempted to ditch off into the infield grass to scrub some speed off, but the trip into the grass spun the car around, causing it to make heavy contact with the outside wall, completely demolishing the driver’s side of the car.
While Gordon was able to climb out of the car under his own power, he would certainly be feeling the after effects well after the crash, which registered 64 Gs on the onboard data recorder.
“I don’t know how [I’m okay], but yes, I am,” Gordon said after being evaluated and released from the Infield Care Center. “Either I’ve got a really hard head or those guys at Hendrick Motorsports just built an awesome race car because that was one of the hardest hits I’ve ever taken. I think we broke a right front brake rotor going into [Turn] 1.
“Probably the worst thing you could ever ask for in a race car is to have the brakes go out going into Turn 1 at Pocono. Between the soft wall and the seat and every safety device we had on there, I never got knocked out. I surprisingly felt pretty good, just a bit of a headache. They wanted to watch me there a little bit, but I’m fine.”
The red flag was displayed as a result of Gordon’s crash and the subsequent clean-up, but once the race went back green with five laps to go, Hamlin was untouchable for the remainder of the race, crossing the line 1.3 seconds ahead of Kurt Busch.
“Man, this thing is unbelievable,” Hamlin said from Victory Lane. “This car was just on rails all day long. We made quarter-rounds at most during every other stop. This whole FedEx Ground Chevrolet was awesome. I’ve got to thank Coca-Cola, Joe Gibbs Racing, everyone who has been a part of this. FedEx had a tough year last year. We’re coming back this year. We’re trying to get in that Chase and this is a great way to do it.
“It’s unbelievable. My success has a lot to do with (crew chief) Mike Ford. Everybody knows his success with Bill Elliott here a couple of years ago and man, he just put an awesome car under me. It’s easy to do when you’ve got a car as dominant as ours. To come back from that blown tire, I couldn’t believe it. I thought our race was over, but man, this car was strong and you can’t hold us down.”
Six weeks later, Hamlin rolled back into Pocono ready to repeat. Luckily, the second go around was a much smoother ride for him and the No. 11 team.
Just like the June race, Hamlin started the race on pole, but this time it was a dominant effort from the drop of the green flag without any hiccups.
Hamlin would go on to lead 151 laps en route to his second win of the season, finishing 1.5 seconds ahead of Kurt Busch, who also finished second to Hamlin in the first Pocono race.
“Pretty uneventful for once,” Hamlin said of his race. “Really good to come here to Pocono and do this again. Our car was just so strong. We did just quarter-turns and this, that, and the other all day, and it was a pretty good day for us.
“This is more about the team than it is about anything else. I’m proud to be with the people I’m with at Joe Gibbs Racing. I can’t help that Mike is such a great crew chief. He prepares the car perfect every single week and it’s up to me to get the job done.
“No matter what we did, whether it was two tires, four tires, or no tires, we were the best car on the race track. At times, cars started to catch up to us a little bit and tune in on us, but in the long run, we were good.”