LONG POND, Pa. — Denny Hamlin was 100 yards from victory at Pocono when the caution flag came out. In a flash, his two-second lead was gone.
Panic time? Not for NASCAR's hottest driver.
After a quick debate with crew chief Mike Ford on what line to take on the restart, Hamlin pulled away from teammate Kyle Busch and roared to his fourth career victory at the peculiar 2.5-mile oval.
To be honest, it was the kind of triumph Hamlin savors more than a simple stroll to the checkered flag.
"I like winning them better this way," he said after notching his fourth win of the season. "It's not just walking away. You really got to earn it."
Hamlin did more than that, leading 88 laps and avoiding the late drama during an unusually chaotic visit to the track tucked into the eastern Pennsylvania mountains.
The win vaulted Hamlin to third in points behind leader Kevin Harvick, who finished fourth behind Hamlin, Busch and Tony Stewart before getting into a postrace scrap with Joey Logano.
And despite reaching Victory Lane for the fourth time in the last two months, Hamlin stressed he's not at the top of his game. At least, not yet.
"Right now we are being conservative, believe it or not," he said. "Hopefully we peak at the right time. I mean, anyone would say, 'Yeah, you're peaking now.' Really, I feel like the best is yet to come."
To get there, Hamlin would be wise to keep the car he used to dominate on Sunday. The car is undefeated in three starts this season, the only problem its had is surviving Hamlin's victory celebrations. He nicked the wall during a lengthy burnout which he sheepishly copped to aftewards.
Hamlin has designs on keeping the car when it's out of the rotation. Owner Joe Gibbs isn't quite ready to negotiate.
"I'm not so sure you can afford it," Gibbs told Hamlin afterward.
"We got to work that deal out still," Hamlin countered with a laugh.
Things weren't all smiles for Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday, even with Hamlin and Busch sweeping the top two spots.
Budding star Logano sat down to talk to NASCAR officials following a pit road confrontation with Harvick shortly after Harvick knocked Logano out of contention on lap 198.
He didn't head to the hauler without taking a dig at Harvick first.
"It's probably not [Harvick's] fault," said Logano, who finished 13th. "His wife wears the firesuit in the family, tells him what to do, so it's probably not his fault."
Harvick's crew chief Gil Martin claimed Logano sped toward Harvick's pit box and nearly slammed into several crew members before coming to a stop.
"If his foot had slipped off the brake right there he would have crushed about three people's legs," Martin said. "If that were to happened, it would have been an all-out brawl on pit row."
It would have mimicked what was happening on the track over the last 40 laps, when a series of cautions shuffled the field and led to the kind of aggressive driving typically seen at Daytona or Talladega.
Stewart was clearly frustrated despite his best finish since early spring. He called the racing off the restarts "idiotic" and left little doubt that he'll seek payback starting next week in Michigan.
"I've seen some of the worst driving I've ever seen in my life in a professional series right here today," he said. "So for anybody that's looking for drama for the next couple races, start looking because I can promise I'm going to start making the highlight reel."
The start was delayed 90 minutes by rain then another 10 minutes or so while officials patched a pothole at the end of pit road inadvertently opened up by a jet dryer. Once the rain cleared, Hamlin dominated.
Behind him, however, things were chippy.
A massive wreck on the final lap swallowed nine cars. Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Kasey Kahne were all involved, with Kahne's No. 9 Ford briefly spinning atop the retaining wall after colliding with Richard Petty Motorsports teammate AJ Allmendinger.
None of the drivers were hurt, but tempers across the garage were frayed.
"I don't know what AJ was doing there," said Kahne, who finished 27th. "I don't ever really talk to him much, but you can bet I will be talking to him this week."
Allmendinger took responsibility for the wreck, though he added he was simply defending his turf.
Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, who had been mired in a mini-slump, posted his best effort since finishing second in Texas in mid-April.
Kurt Busch, looking to back up wins in the All-Star race and last week in Charlotte, finished sixth despite a series of early race setbacks that had him a lap down for a time.
None, however, were a match for Hamlin. Nobody really is at Pocono.
He won twice here in 2006, then scored an emotional victory last summer shortly after the death of his grandmother.
Kyle Busch was hoping to make his record-breaking Cup start memorable after grabbing the pole. At 25 years, one month and four days old he became the youngest driver ever to reach the 200-start plateau. Brian Vickers was 25 years, 11 months, 3 days when he reached his 200th start.
Busch led four times for 32 laps but wasn't complaining after coming up short. He's never been a fan of the quirky eastern Pennsylvania track. That didn't change even after his best finish here.
"Denny has this place figured out," Busch said. "I did the best I could. I went from about an `F' at knowing how to get around here today to about an `A,' and an `A' didn't get it done."
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