NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Denny Hamlin Not Necessarily the 3rd Wheel Now at Joe Gibbs Racing

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 two-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 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, Va. 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 for the Nextel Cup 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 driver 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 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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