LONG POND, Pa. --Kurt Busch said it best: "I think the moral of the story is we need to play more video games as veterans," he quipped.
That's because for the second straight year, a rookie whose first taste of Pocono Raceway came via a video game won the Pocono 500.
A year ago, it was Carl Edwards, for all intents and purposes a rookie in 2005, who practiced for the race using a fake steering wheel and a computer. This year, it was Denny Hamlin, a 25-year-old rookie who'd never seen Pocono's actual 2.5-mile triangle until he landed there on Friday, but had raced around it many times in virtual reality.
Hamlin, the pole-sitter, suffered an early-race spin that dropped him from the lead all the way to 40th, but managed to rally and earn the first Nextel Cup victory of his career. Busch took second. Tony Stewart completed all 200 laps and finished third.
"When you go to a racetrack that you've never been to before, you gotta find let-off points, especially on a flat racetrack like this," Hamlin said. "What that does with the video game is, they've [got] every tree that's on the side. They've got everything mapped out perfect. Visually, I know where my let-off points are. Now, I still had to fine-tune that at the racetrack quite a bit, but it helps with track awareness."
Hamlin spent three days last week practicing on his computer, arrived on Friday, won the pole that afternoon, then led 49 of the first 50 laps in yesterday's race. But as he entered Turn 2 on Lap 51, he cut his left-rear tire, sending him into a tailspin into the infield that left him covered in dirt and grass. His car had far worse damage, including a torn-up rear quarter-panel that flapped in the wind the remainder of the race.
It took him 40 laps to go from 40th to 15th. By Lap 96, he was back in the top five, where he stayed, retaking the lead with 23 laps to go.
"I felt like we were still a top-five car, but we weren't that dominant car that we were early," Hamlin said. "But we kept making it better and better, repairing this car a little bit more, and I knew with about 100 to go, we did have a dominant car again."
With 11 laps to go, things got scary for Jeff Gordon. Traveling at nearly 200 mph, Gordon lost his brakes going into Turn 1. He spun around and smacked the wall so hard it severely dented the driver's side of his car and damaged the wall, stopping the race for 13 minutes while repairs were made.
"That was one of the hardest hits I've ever taken," said Gordon, who climbed out under his own power. "Probably the worst thing you could ever ask for in a racecar is to have the brakes go out going into Turn 1 at Pocono.
"Between the soft wall, the seat and the safety device we had on, I never got knocked out," he continued. "I was surprisingly feeling pretty good other than just a bit of a headache."
The restart meant Hamlin had to make a decision - should he pit for fresh tires or stay out? Deciding his car was good enough, he stayed out and won going away.
Afterward, he gave credit to the video game, though his teammate, Stewart, strongly disagreed.
"It gives you an idea of what the layout looks like, but it doesn't give you the physical feel of it," Stewart said. "Video games are video games and racecars are racecars. There's a huge difference.
"The fact that they're talented and have good cars are what make these rookies good at Pocono. That's a myth; that's a legend. You'll see it on Myth Busters real soon."
Jay Hart writes for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa.