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Hamlin worthy of praise for going the distance at Phoenix

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Denny Hamlin showed his true athleticism during Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway.

Ten days after he underwent surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Hamlin completed the near four-hour race in excruciating pain. But his outcome on the track turned out to be more painful than his knee.

Hamlin got caught up in a multi-car crash in the early going. Kurt Busch made contact with Kasey Kahne, sending Kahne into the wall. Busch then slid down the track and bumped Hamlin as he tried to avoid the incident.

His night turned for the worse later when he experienced an electrical issue. During a caution, he stalled while exiting pit road and had to be pushed around the one-mile track back to his stall, where his crew members installed another battery. After Friday's practices and qualifying, Hamlin wasn't sure if he could go the full distance. He did with a bit of inspiration from his team.

Denny Hamlin tore his ACL while playing basketball in January.
"I got a lot of encouragement from the team," Hamlin said. "Through thick and thin, we're a team. I feel like they gave their left leg for me and do everything they could do to make sure we were successful. I felt like it was my duty and my job, and that's what I'm hired to do, is to try to do the best I can and keep this team as good as we can."

Hamlin tore his ACL while playing basketball in January. He originally planned on having the surgery at the end of the season but had the procedure two days after his Martinsville win. Joe Gibbs Racing had Casey Mears on standby as a relief driver, but Mears' assistance was not needed, as he sat atop Hamlin's pit box throughout the 378-lap race.

"I would have been too embarrassed to give Casey the car I had [Saturday]; it's not what we're accustomed to," Hamlin said.

Mears also will be on standby for this weekend's race at Texas.

Hamlin has to feel fortunate he went the distance; in the past, some NASCAR drivers who were nursing injuries had no other choice but to hand the car over to a relief driver at some point in the race.

Such was the case for two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart during the 2006 season. Stewart suffered a shoulder injury due to crashes in both the Nationwide and Cup races at Charlotte during Memorial Day weekend. The following week, he started at Dover, but Ricky Rudd quickly relieved him.

"If someone gets out of their race car, you know that they're in a lot of pain or they don't feel well," Stewart said. "My mindset is that if I can't focus on what I need to do, then I'm not doing a good job for the team, and the best thing I can do is get somebody in who can focus."

NASCAR fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. had relief for the New Hampshire and Pocono summer races in 2004. On an off-weekend for Cup, Earnhardt Jr. suffered severe burns on parts of his body during a practice crash for an American Le Mans Series race in Sonoma, CA.

"My burns were bothering me pretty bad, and I didn't want to be in the car any more," Earnhardt Jr said. "It felt weird watching my car run around, but we were having such a miserable day anyway, it would have really bothered me more if I had a good car."

After finishing two laps behind in 30th, Hamlin said he was "absolutely exhausted" and had a "miserable experience." Ryan Newman drove to victory lane -- his first trip there in 78 races -- but Hamlin turned out to be the biggest winner in Phoenix.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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