AVONDALE, Ariz. — Denny Hamlin spent nearly two months of the offseason in the Scottsdale area, hoping to get away from racing for a while and reinvigorate himself for the 2012 season.
It seemed to do wonders, leading to victory at a place where he had one of his biggest disappointments.
Hamlin pulled away when NASCAR's best closer ran out of gas, then had to sweat out his own fuel mileage before completing a confidence-boosting win in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
"It's a little bit of satisfaction there, for sure," said Hamlin, who is now the overall Sprint Cup points leader. "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 for the Championship when his title hopes were derailed at Phoenix by a fuel strategy that backfired. Forced to pit for fuel late in the race, he scrambled 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 straight title.
Hamlin then had a bit of a hangover to start last season and never really clicked, ending up ninth in the standings.
That's where his return to the desert comes in.
Trying to get away from the constant race chatter around the Charlotte, N.C., area, Hamlin rented a house in Paradise Valley for seven weeks. He then finished fourth at the Daytona 500 with new crew chief Darian Grubb after qualifying 31st.
Hamlin started 13th Sunday and briefly led a couple of times before beating Kevin Harvick off the line after a caution with 59 laps left. Harvick put a scare into Hamlin toward the end but ran out of gas on the final lap.
Hamlin was concerned about gas as well, but he had just enough for a celebratory burnout after his 18th career win.
"When I come back here (and win), it puts 2011 to rest," Hamlin said. "It's a year I'd soon like to forget, and now we can focus on winning a championship."
Harvick, who won three races at the finish last season, had Hamlin lined up for another.
But as he closed on the No. 11, Harvick's car turned off and the No. 29 coasted over the line ahead of Greg Biffle for second.
"Those are the types of things you've got to do to take the chances and when you're close enough to at least coast around, they did a good job," Harvick said.
It was a nice win for Hamlin crew chief Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to his third Cup title last year but was fired a week later. Grubb landed with Joe Gibbs Racing and seems to have clicked right away with Hamlin.
"I guess you could say it's a little bit of vindication, but I really don't think that way. I just try to take the high road," Grubb said.
EAST BAY RACEWAY: AJ Maddox outdueled Jimmy Ballew late Saturday, capturing the Sprints on the opening night of the season at the track. Other winners: Eric Moon (Street Stocks), Roger Crouse (Late Models, his 28th straight year with a win at the track) and Don R. Quinn (4-cylinder Bombers).
. FAST FACTS
Sprint Cup points
Through 2 of 36 races. The top 10 drivers plus two wild cards (based on wins) after 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
Denny Hamlin 89—
Greg Biffle 83 6
Kevin Harvick 81 8
Matt Kenseth 79 10
D. Earnhardt Jr. 72 17
Martin Truex 71 18
Mark Martin 71 18
Joey Logano 70 19
Kyle Busch 66 23
Carl Edwards 63 26
Note: Points unofficial; NASCAR posts official points today.