Five years ago at Kansas Speedway, a somewhat unknown racer named Denny Hamlin debuted in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet.
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It was a tryout of sorts. JGR needed a replacement in the FedEx car after Jason Leffler failed to produce a top-10 finish in 19 starts and did not qualify for Charlotte.
Hamlin, then 24, was pitted against J.J. Yeley, who qualified for just two of the four races he entered in 2004 and averaged a 34th-place finish. Yeley’s first shot in 2005 resulted in a 39th-place finish. In Yeley’s next four auditions his best finish was 24th at Dover, but he failed to make the race at Atlanta.
Hamlin qualified seventh in the car at Kansas, though his 32nd-place finish was unremarkable.
“Right away, I felt I was good enough to do this,” Hamlin said.
His next six starts produced three top-10 finishes, including his first career Cup Series pole, which he earned at Phoenix.
Gibbs discovered a rare diamond in the rough, and Federal Express found its driver.
This weekend, Hamlin returns to Kansas with a 35 point lead over Jimmie Johnson. But he’s also carrying baggage from Dover that he’d just as soon leave behind. Although Hamlin continues to master his craft as a racer, he hasn’t learned to temper his outspokenness.
And that makes him an easy target.
Hamlin’s verbal attack of Richard Childress Racing to the media Friday resulted in an on-track scuffle with Kevin Harvick during Saturday practice that continued with a shouting match once the drivers returned to the garage with their battered cars. Hamlin explained he took offense at Clint Bowyer calling out his team and the No. 48 for not passing the height sticks portion of postrace inspection on the first attempt at New Hampshire and felt the need to defend his position.
Team owner Joe Gibbs had a frank discussion with Hamlin after the incident to explain the repercussions of his comments.
“It’s a tough balance,” Hamlin said. “It’s hard for me not to just say what’s on my mind at times, but not everybody needs to hear it all the time even when you think things are going wrong. Joe kind of explained that to me. I understand that.
“Listening to my own press conference from this weekend, man, it was kind of harsh. It was harsh. Maybe I should just deflect it. I watched (Johnson’s) press conference, and a lot of other guys before and after me, and they just kind of shielded themselves, said their piece and it was over with. I always say too much and get too in depth. I just say too much.”
Hamlin now admits that trying to inject himself into the argument by trying to “influence the media, Clint (Bowyer), RCR or NASCAR didn’t matter except for sound bites for everyone else.” However, the consequences of Hamlin’s words not only affected himself, it disrupted the entire team.
“I knew there were going to be repercussions whether it was going to be on the racetrack or a phone call from (Richard Childress) himself,” Hamlin said. “It didn’t matter. I knew there were going to be repercussions, but I wasn’t thinking that when I was saying what I was saying.
“I was thinking, ‘let me stick up for my race team first and then I’ll throw them under the bus second.’ I wonder how I get myself into these positions sometimes. It’s my personality. I’ve been in this crap for years now. I do this all the time.”
For the past five seasons, crew chief Mike Ford has led Hamlin and the No. 11 crew through five Chase for the Sprint Cup appearances and 14 wins. Understandably, he appeared more than disappointed with his driver on Saturday, particularly since most of the first practice was spent repairing a damaged race car instead of gaining valuable seat time on the track.
“Mike wasn’t laughing at all,” Hamlin said. “He’s the deflection type guy. He figures we have enough to worry about within our race as far as what we need to do to stay focused to win a championship. We don’t need to make our jobs any harder. He felt like we made our jobs harder, and I can’t disagree with that.”
Hamlin says he spoke with Harvick and has put the incident behind him. He didn’t want one dust-up to destroy their friendship or interfere with an opportunity to dethrone Johnson.
“We do a lot for each other off the racetrack, and that goes a long way,” Hamlin said. “We talked about where do we go from here. Do we continue to chase each other around the racetrack or do we move on and concentrate on both of us winning a championship — because we’re both in a good spot right now. He is, too. I think that’s where we came to the point if we keep messing around we’re going to let someone else win this thing.”
Hamlin acknowledges “there are lessons to be learned.” With Coach Gibbs’ experience with players in the NFL, Hamlin believes the boss has a gift when it comes to dealing with people. He just wishes Gibbs was around the shop more to offer his guidance.
“He does a good job of keeping the muzzle on guys when he needs to,” Hamlin said. “He’s been in sports all the time that he knows when to say things and when not to say things. There’s something to be learned from that.”
On the track, Hamlin believes handling the pressure of performing at the Sprint Cup level has been the toughest part of the job. Despite sitting atop the point standings, Hamlin still feels vulnerable. At 29, he knows there will be plenty of opportunities to win the championship.
“You deal with pressure based on how you perform,” Hamlin said. “In 2007, our expectations were so high to go out and win a championship because we came so close my rookie year. I felt like it was entirely on my shoulders to make that happen. In 2007, our cars weren’t good enough to win the championship, but I tried to make that happen, and I ended up crashing a lot (during) the Chase races.
“I tried to get too much done when I wasn’t really capable of it, and I ended up finishing 12th because of it. You have to learn to manage that pressure. I try to relax and realize that if I don’t win it this year that I have perhaps 15 more shots at it. We’re going to get one, one of these days.”