Notebook: Back to business for Hamlin

BY foxsports • February 7, 2011

Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team enter the NASCAR Sprint Cup season not only carrying the momentum of their 2010 runner-up finish, but also the weight of that.

While they know to put it behind them, it was clearly difficult for the team to enter the final race leading the standings but emerge second to champion Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin says he dealt with all that shortly after the season and has put it firmly in his past.

Now, he’s taking the offensive when it comes to his approach this year and seems to carry the perception that he’s more of an underdog.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think last year going into 2010 there were probably more expectations than what there are for myself this year,” he said. “I think everyone is expecting a letdown year and obviously for me I know it’s not an option. I’m excited about the challenge.”

Hamlin, 30, says he really likes that challenge aspect. He has historically noted those who expected him to fare worse in the standings that he did and used preseason predictions concerning others as champion to motivate his own effort. The Virginia native just views that as part of his makeup.

“I feel like I’m one of the toughest competitors in the garage,” he said. “That doesn’t mean necessarily about racing. Everything that I ever do I’m so competitive and I hate losing. That’s what fuels my racing drive and that’s why I chose racing back when I was a kid. Iit’s you versus the other guys. The cars are all meant to be the same and the drivers are supposed to work it out. For me that was what I loved about racing was the challenge of beating someone heads up. It doesn’t matter what I do, that fire will never change.”

Still, Hamlin is clearly putting pressure on himself to perform this year.

Especially after finishing second last year.

“It’s always championship or bust,” he said when asked. “But, for me, if I don’t win the championship then I’ve took a step back because I finished second in points. If I finish third, how am I going to consider that a successful year? I just took a step back from where I was last year. And, you see over the last four years we’ve jumped three spots in the points every year over these last four years or so. For me, there’s only one more spot to move up and I’m going to go into this year with a whole lot more knowledge of what I need to do and what I need to work on from this point forward.”

Love is in the air

It’s hard for some fans to think of Kyle Busch as a mushy, romantic kind of guy – but that’s just what he was when it came to his wedding day.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver married his long-time girlfriend Samantha Sarcinella on New Year’s Eve – and practically gushed about the ceremony when asked about it recently.

“The most nerve-racking part about the wedding was, of course when you’re standing there, my brother started it and was bringing my parents down the aisle, and right there, I was like, ‘Oh man, if this is this hard already, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be when Samantha starts walking down,’ but I started looking a little bit at everybody that was coming down, but then I looked up and looked at the organ so I was trying to forget about it and put things in a little bit different light,” he said. “And then Samantha, the doors open and she came out and I was like, ‘Oh man.’”

He tried desperately to keep his emotions in check.

“I knew I wouldn’t look like a sap, but I was like, ‘Man just don’t cry, don’t make the pictures turn out (bad).’ ... So I had a smile on and everything,” he said. “It was pretty awesome. That was a feeling I’ve never had before and when you feel something like that, it changes quite a bit about what you’ve had happen and what you see happening for times to come.”

The event didn’t go off without a slight hitch, though.

It turns out that older brother Kurt Busch decided to be a prankster for the day.

“It was ‘Help me’ or something like that he wrote on the bottom of my shoes,” Kyle Busch said. “As soon as we got to the church and we got up on the front, and then we had to kneel for the first time because it was a traditional Catholic wedding, I was like, ‘Oh man, I forgot, because I had a deal with my Toyota friends that I was going to put Toyota on the bottom of the shoes’ and I had forgot to do it.

“Well, Kurt’s sitting in the audience just busting out laughing … I didn’t even look. Who looks at the bottom of their shoes on their wedding day? I’ll give this advice to anybody else who ever gets married. Look at the bottom of your shoes before you put them on because obviously somebody’s going to screw with you.”

It’s my turn

Joey Logano, entering his third full season of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition, exudes a bit more confidence these days.

He’s optimistic that he can challenge for a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth this season, but most importantly, he seems to feel more comfortable both with his team and with racing at this level. Logano has labored to gain the respect of his competitors. Now, after taking over the team that won two titles with Tony Stewart, he seems to be paving his own path at JGR rather than following in the footsteps of the men who preceded him.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. “I feel like this is my team now. The Home Depot Toyota has been around forever, yes, but I feel like they’re mine now. All the guys are behind me 110 percent. I come in with a lot of confidence, too, which is huge. Confidence is a lot to be said for sure.”

The bucket list

It’s not that his NASCAR Nationwide Series championship, role as a Camping World Series Truck owner or 86 wins in NASCAR’s top three series are things that Kyle Busch takes for granted.

But the 25-year-old freely admits that none of these were among his chief goals when he made the move to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Now, he’s looking to start checking off some of his prime objectives.

“I haven’t achieved any of my race win goals that I’ve wanted to achieve since I’ve come here,” he admitted recently. “I’ve achieved everything else under the sun that I’ve never thought about achieving. The ones that I really want like the (Daytona) 500, like the (Brickyard) 400, like the (Coca-Cola) 600, a Charlotte Cup win at all, an All-Star race, the championship -- all that stuff. I haven’t gotten any of that.”

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