Hamlin embracing preseason favorite role

BY foxsports • January 19, 2010

The buzz surrounding Denny Hamlin started months before he took the checkered flag on last season's finale. What was a murmur, though, suddenly became a roar.

That November victory at Homestead, his career-best fourth of the year, officially made Hamlin the trendy pick to unseat reigning four-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2010.

But being the preseason favorite isn't all it's cracked up to be, as Carl Edwards would likely admit. He was the popular pick last year, and instead suffered through a winless season and an 11th-place finish in the standings.

Hamlin is determined not to fall into that same trap.

``I've been compared to Carl before. He had a really good rookie year and then had a sophomore slump and didn't make the Chase,'' Hamlin said Monday during the annual preseason media tour. ``But I am not Carl Edwards and I am not with Roush-Fenway (Racing). I am Denny, I am with Joe Gibbs Racing and with an organization that does a really good job of minimizing the peaks and valleys.

``So I don't foresee any of the expectations being too far off.''

Hamlin set the bar high himself this time last year, when he went into 2009 determined to put a full season together and take the personal steps needed to be a true championship contender. Although he's made the Chase in each of his four seasons, he struggled to mount a legitimate challenge to Johnson.

Despite his tough talk, Hamlin had doubters. It wasn't until September, when he grabbed a breakthrough win at hometrack Richmond, that people began to notice he had indeed flipped a switch.

He became more vocal about NASCAR's rules and regulations, and took to Twitter to both offer his opinions and interact with fans. He publicly sparred with Brad Keselowski, the next big star, and lashed out with comical diatribes against the brash new driver.

But more important, he won two Chase races and proved that barring mechanical failures, Hamlin and his No. 11 team have a very real potential to be champions.

``I know how much it fuels me up wanting to be the guy who takes him off his chair,'' he said of Johnson. ``I don't think anyone else in the garage wants it worse than I do right now.''

Hamlin had only one true off race in the Chase - a 22nd at Dover - but was hampered by mechanical failures at Charlotte and Talladega that ultimately contributed to his fifth-place finish in the standings. There was also a little incident at California, when driver error caused him to wreck while leading.

That wreck, though, was really Johnson's fault, Hamlin now understands.

``He forced me into a wreck at California. Not literally, but just mentally,'' Hamlin said. ``I knew he had the car to beat and there was no way I was going to beat him unless I outdrove him. And I drove over my head and got in a wreck. So he forced me to make a mistake, and that's what he's so good at.

``That's what champions do. They don't make mistakes, they make others make mistakes.''

That realization is pivotal to Hamlin's growth, crew chief Mike Ford said.

``I know it's a cliche that you've got to lose one before you can win one, but that was the one he lost,'' Ford said. ``But one thing about Denny is if he makes a mistake, he usually comes back and corrects it.''

There's been very little else to correct, though, as Hamlin has flourished in his newfound popularity. He threw an expensive Las Vegas party in December, is hoping his Charlotte nightclub finally opens this week, and is fresh off a whirlwind tour of California that was both work and play. In addition to taking in the Rose Bowl and a Lakers game, he met with various executives while trying to ``figure out the Denny Hamlin brand, just what that is.''

That, Hamlin said, is a work in progress and one team owner Joe Gibbs rolled his eyes at.

``I wish you hadn't brought that up,'' Gibbs laughed about the nightclub.

So what happened to the quiet kid from Chesterfield, Va., Gibbs hired back in 2005?

``I don't think he's the same kid, mainly because so much has changed for him,'' Gibbs said. ``What I saw the last part of last year is somebody who has grown up and said `I can do this' and the confidence thing that goes with that. I think he showed down the stretch that he has stepped up, and he was focused.''

Maintaining it will be the hardest part for Hamlin, and Gibbs said ``we're going to have to wait and see'' if the driver can do it. But two-time champion Tony Stewart's eyes lit up Monday when asked about Hamlin and the changes he's seen in his former teammate.

``I think it took a while for him to find his niche,'' Stewart said. ``You can tell when he gets comfortable - it's when he gets talking and gets more vocal. You can tell he's getting comfortable and I think he's found that spot.''

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