The Frontstretch: Denny Hamlin: Not Necessarily The Third Wheel Now At Joe Gibbs Racing by Tommy Thompson -- Tuesday August 14, 2007

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Denny Hamlin: Not Necessarily The Third Wheel Now At Joe Gibbs Racing

Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday August 14, 2007


Yesterday's announcement that Kyle Busch would be joining Joe Gibbs Racing for the 2008 season was almost anti-climatic as the signing had already seemed a foregone conclusion. Motorsports writers had already analyzed Busch's move to the three-car Nextel Cup team from almost every conceivable angle. Is it a smart move by Gibbs given the 22-year old’s penchant for not fitting in? Will sponsors want to take a chance on the still unpredictable youngster? Can he win a championship in Gibbs equipment? And probably the unknown generating the most curiosity is will he be able to co-exist with 2-time Champion, and equally troublesome new teammate, Tony Stewart? But the one guy in the entire hubbub involving Busch's move rarely mentioned is the third driver in the Gibbs stable…Denny Hamlin. It is apparently just assumed that though Hamlin is in only his second full year in the big leagues, he will not be deterred by the arrival of Kyle Busch and will merely continue to perform at the exceptional level that he has since his arrival in Cup racing.

That the 27-year old from Chesterfield, Virginia has already reached the status of a reliable professional in most observers eyes is in itself a true compliment to last seasons Rookie of the Year honoree. The No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet showed almost immediate improvement from the time that Hamlin took over the ride near the end of the 2005 season. Previous Gibbs hopeful Jason Leffler was relieved of his duties in the car and Hamlin replaced him, but in the precarious position of being just three points from losing top-35 protection. Hamlin's job security was tenuous at best as he was told from the outset unless he produced immediate results Terry Labonte would be brought onboard to attempt to improve the team’s points predicament. Hamlin did not disappoint, building a 458-point cushion between himself and the 36th position in his seven starts. The impressive performance assured Hamlin of the FedEx ride for the 2006 season, and he has not looked back since.

As a rookie last season, Hamlin went scored two wins at Pocono and captured the Bud Shootout to boot, becoming the only rookie to ever win that race. It was a race that he became eligible for by capturing a pole at Phoenix during his short 2005 introduction to Cup racing. 2006 also saw Hamlin not only qualify for the Chase to the Nextel Championship, but to also almost win it, coming up a mere 68 points short of pulling off a near miracle!

And of course this year has been every bit as impressive with Hamlin apparently not buying into the "sophomore jinx" fable as he presently sits second in drivers’ points and is the only driver within shouting distance of four time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. Hamlin almost seems oblivious to his lack of experience as he appears comfortable on any and all track configurations, including road courses, as evidenced by his stellar second place run at Watkins Glen last Sunday and his Busch Series win in Mexico last year.

Though I would not make the argument that Hamlin is now the lead driver at Gibbs, he has all-and-all out performed Stewart over the last season and a half, and Joe Gibbs Racing nonetheless has found a gem in the congenial and talented driver. Despite the notoriety of Stewart and Kyle Busch, time may very well prove Hamlin to be JGR's most valuable asset. At least based on what the second year Cup driver has accomplished up to now and factoring in further reasonable expectations based on the assumption that he still has even more honing of his skills to do. The future certainly looks unbelievably bright for Hamlin.

Hamlin has already weathered the juvenile and malicious behavior of the volatile Stewart, and most would agree that he handled the situation with poise and class far exceeding his relative inexperience in the spotlight that is NASCAR. After being accused by his teammate of not being a team player and causing a wreck by slowing too much into a turn at Daytona last month, Hamlin showed pure class a maturity in defusing the situation by simply saying, "I'm going to be the bigger man, and I'll take the blame on this. If he wants to blame it on me, I'll be the bigger man and take responsibility for it." It is safe to assume that Hamlin will be just as adept at handling any inter-team difficulties that might arise with newcomer Busch.

Smooth may best describe Hamlin's style of driving. He never seems to use up the equipment and is always around at the end of a race. In fact the FedEx pilot currently holds the longest no-DNF streak at 52-consecutive races. A statistic that is not only a testament to the reliability of his equipment, but also the exceptional talent that Hamlin consistently displays on the track. An ability that his father, whom the younger Hamlin is named after, noted the driver exhibited early in his Late Model racing career. According to the elder Hamlin, Denny stressed the importance of bringing the car home in one piece, as there was no money in the race coffers for repairs. Denny, Sr. claims that his son won over 25 races that season without so much as a fender needing replacing.

To date there has been no indication that Hamlin is not equipped to handle the pressures both on and off the track that NASCAR's more successful drivers are burdened with. After a finish of third in the final point tally in 2006 and a current stranglehold on second, this season’s championship, and others in the years to come, appear to be attainable. And for the team owner, Hamlin's ability to handle himself professionally in the public eye no doubt makes the job of marketing him considerably less difficult.

There is little doubt that teammates Busch and Stewart will always find a way to garner more publicity and notoriety than Denny Hamlin. But don't be surprised that in the end, and all is said and done, Hamlin proves to be every bit the on-track equal of his Joe Gibbs counterparts.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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Steven Grumbine
08/15/2007 06:11 AM

I don’t want to sound like a homer at all, but the fact is that Tony Stewart is a 2 time champion in NASCAR… Not to mention a Triple Crown Champion. IROC Champion, and on and on and on… He can drive the wheels off of any car he touches. So let’s not crown Denny the crown jewel just yet. Tony has a lot of racing still in him.

That said, I am a Gibbs guy. The upcoming move to Toyota, should it prove true, will deal a blow to each and everyone of the drivers in that garage. You can call next year the “lost year” if they blow it and change manufacturers. I think Toyota nailed it when they said we are probably a couple of years away from really having anything meaningful to offer a powerhouse team like a Gibbs… I would be extremely upset for each driver, but mostly for Tony as he is 36 and not getting any younger. A change of manufacturer and to a foreign one at that, is not the kind of legacy I think he really wants or his fans want.

All in all, the three Gibbs drivers of ’08 have enough talent to each win the championship. It has been a while since Gordon has won one and I think that Tony has produced more this century, but I am just shooting from the hip on that one. Either way, Denny has potential for many years to come and if Gibbs can work his faith based magic on the Shrub he has just brought on, he will be sitting pretty for many years to come, manufacturer be damned.


JGR Gurl
08/15/2007 07:43 AM

Denny “has all-and-all out performed Stewart over the last season and a half”… are you kidding me? You should check your stats. In the last season and a half Tony has 8 wins, 22 top 5’s and 34 top 10’s. Now maybe my math is rusty but I do believe that tops Denny’s 3 wins, 17 top 5’s and 33 top 10’s. Now I won’t bring up Tony’s TWO Championships (oops looks like I just did) because it’s a bit unfair since Denny was only been in cup for less than two years. Although I do think it’s fair to point out that Tony still holds the record for most wins in a rookie season.

Point is… Tony is still the MAN at JGR and I’m willing to bet, he will continue to be until he steps away from the organization.

Diane Mc
08/15/2007 09:26 AM

Amen to the above 2 posts. No way is Hamlin as good a driver as Stewart. He has yet to pay his dues in NASCAR. And his mouth is just as big as Tony’s. He threw his crew under the bus several times this year. Not a smart move for a 2nd year driver.

08/15/2007 10:01 AM

Hey tommy, it looks like Tony also got a following of certain females that like the bad boy image, no doubt Tony is probably one of the best race car drivers ever, but as always just like Kenseth Hamlin will win and outperform the others and fall away under the sun, because just like Kenseth is not a loud mouth bad boy.

Steven Grumbine
08/15/2007 11:45 AM

Gang…Leo is absolutely correct… In his analogy of Denny and Kenseth versus Tony, he pegged it perfectly… Who would want to see Saving Private Ryan or Die Hard when you can see the Oprah in the movie The Color Purple!!! LOL… Dude… Kenseth would have been a great stand in for Kenny Schrader in his Little Debbie commercials where he is a card board cut out… dude is a good driver doomed to mediocrity because he has a personality like a dead fish. I have enough boring things in my life to eat up all of my dead time. When I watch NASCAR and read these stories, I want to ensure that I have a good time… Tony is the perfect antedote for the grind of the work week.

Robert Eastman
08/15/2007 04:07 PM

Congratulations to both Kyle Busch and JGR! They each got what they needed. For JGR, Kyle brings a “spark of life” that’s been missing from the #18 team for years. He will demand winning equipment and team performance every week. Unlike JJ, he will “play offense” instead of defense. Obviously he’s not going to worry about keeping his job, JUST WINNING! The #18’s performance will improve dramatically, like team #11’s did when Hamlin took over “the driving chores.”
Additional sponsorship for the team should be easier to get with Busch on-board. What’s not to like about a 22 year old seasoned veteran with loads of talent and winning ways. He has many productive years ahead of him and with the “proper grooming” by JGR, he can become a “sponsor’s dream,” Super-Star Celebrity Spokeman.

For Kyle, he will receive the appreciation and the dignity that he needs and deserves. He will be “an equal” and “part of the team,” unlike his experience at HMS! JGR can accommodate different “personality types” that don’t fit an exact mold, and help them flourish. Unlike HMS, it appears that celebrity drivers at JGR can feel “free to be themselves,” within certain perameters of course. Probably Joe’s experience in the NFL, with so many different superstar and prima-donna types, has helped him realize that the earth is not going to spin off it’s axis, everytime someone is not “politically correct.”
At JGR, Kyle will know that they care about him as a person, not just his talent and results. He will now be in an environment that will be conducive to his maturity growth and development.
The signing of Kyle Busch may very well be the synergistic catalyst that propels JGR to NASCAR “Super-Team” status and dominance.

All the driver changes that have taken place, should make next year’s racing the most exciting and competitive in NASCAR history.
Hopefully, NASCAR won’t “screw it up.”
As for Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart, they will be even more motivated to “turn it up” a notch, if that’s even possible! Stiff competition “improves the breed” and makes for “Great Racing!”

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