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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: The Odd Couple, Busch & Hamlin Ready to End HMS Dominance

On the surface, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the most unlikely of teammates.

They’re as different as a quiet, leisurely summer drive on country roads versus 500 miles of beating and banging under the lights at The Lady in Black. As different as a flawless 12.5-second pit stop and missing your pit box, then running over the hose and getting a pit-road speeding penalty the second time around.

Denny dutifully thanks his team, his pit crew and all his sponsors when he wins races. Kyle smashes lovingly hand crafted custom-made trophies into hundreds of pieces, by comparison.

Certainly, you could make a forthright argument that the irascible and combustible Busch and any other driver you care to mention would also seem unlikely teammates.

But for these two in particular, it’s their differences that make them work.

And much of it is down to that all important word: Communication. That wasn’t something that came easy – far from it.

Said Hamlin, prior to Busch’s victory at Richmond and his own relatively disappointing 11th-place effort at a track he tends to dominate: “It’s tough at times to have a conversation with Kyle, but we make it work.”

If making it work isn’t at the heart of the definition of what it takes to succeed in NASCAR, I don’t know what is. Put simply, Hamlin and Busch have learned to communicate and that, it seems, is starting to pay dividends for both teams.

Hamlin went on to add, “Half of my entertainment in this sport comes from Kyle Busch, so I love having him as a teammate.”

Now before they both sit down around the campfire, holding hands and start warbling “Kumbayah,” it’s crucial to point out the importance of teammates – even ones you bicker with.

Last season, in the Chase, Jimmie Johnson had two of them – Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. Hamlin had none. Now, that’s not to say the Virginia native would have performed better with a wing man – Jimmie would still have won his fourth straight crown.

Rather, it’s an “intangible” type factor. Just as with communication, it’s the intangibles that separate you in stock car racing from the snarling pack of chasers.

To become a Cup champion is one of the most difficult tasks in all of sport – any sport. Only 28 drivers have won the championship in 61 years. 13 of those drivers have just one solitary title.

Yet Hamlin and Busch are both drivers who have been labeled with the moniker “future Cup champion” at one point or another. Heck, their teammate Joey Logano has been called that since just about the time he first started wearing long pants.

In sport, just as in life, talk of “future potential” can be ephemeral: Here one day and absolutely gone, quicker than a heartbeat, the next.

But both Joe Gibbs racers appear to be ready to translate that optimism and promise into something much more tangible – namely a seat at the big boys table at the Sprint Cup banquet this November.

Speaking of Cup champions, it’s hugely revealing to look back at the six most recent winners to see how quickly they achieved their triumph. Gordon won his first in his third full season, while Tony Stewart, the ever-riveting Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch won their respective titles in their fourth full season. Jimmie took five full years to win his first (and can’t stop winning since) while the 2000 champion, Bobby Labonte, won his only title at the eighth time of asking.

In short, then, it seems that the drivers who get it done, do it early.

Kyle is now in his sixth full season, while Denny is working on his fifth – in other words, just about the optimal time to take that next step. For two such different drivers, though, it’s interesting to note the similarities in their overall records thus far. Hamlin has raced some 35 races less (essentially a full season) – 162 to Busch’s 197 – but otherwise their records are eerily comparable. Busch has 17 wins, 58 top fives and 91 top 10s to Hamlin’s 11 wins, 53 top fives and 83 top 10s. Busch has six poles, Hamlin seven and in terms of average finish, the Chesterfield, Va. native (13.9) eclipses the Vegas-born Busch (16.0) by a scant margin.

What is also interesting to note is how both drivers’ results have improved – markedly – since the exit of the maligned, unloved Fast and the Furious-style wing and the return of the spoiler. In the first five “winged” races of the year, Busch had a highest run of ninth and an average finish of 15.4, Hamlin, meanwhile, had a best finish of 17th and an average finish of 21.9.

But since Martinsville, when the spoiler was reintroduced, much to the delight of just about everyone with any kind of rooting interest in NASCAR, Busch has won at Richmond and has finishes of third, seventh, eighth, ninth and 22nd – an average of 8.3. Hamlin’s record has also improved – and then some – he’s won three races and finished fourth, 11th and 30th (nine days after ACL surgery) for an average finish of eighth place.

Now it’s fair to say this is a sliver of a sample size and there is plenty of racing still to be done, but given we’ve visited a real smorgasbord of different tracks (restrictor plate, flat 1-miler, short track, intermediate and the unique egg shape of Darlington) it’s not a stretch to conclude that both are running better post-wing and more importantly – will continue to do so.

Busch and Hamlin are also helped by the fact they’re with the last organization that beat out Rick Hendrick and crew to a Championship: Smoke in 2005. Having a proven winner such as Coach Gibbs at the helm and the experience and knowledge of his son JD only enhances the opportunities in front of the two drivers. Plus, they’re the number one team for Toyota in the Cup Series, and you have to make the logical conclusion that the support they receive outweighs (even only a little) the other teams that run the Japanese automaker.

While we’re on the topic, let’s not forget li’l Logano either who, with each passing week, is looking more and more like a (dare I say it) future Cup champ. His form, setup notes and ever-increasing experience can only make him more valuable as a teammate in terms of information sharing. This, too, is something that will only get better as the long season draws to its inexorable conclusion in November.

Logano’s youth now combines with the experience of two battle-tested playoff veterans. It’s often said that in Cup you need to lose one to win one; Johnson can attest to that in both 2004 and 2005, before he finally crested the hump and started blowing everyone away these past few years. It’s a sentiment that rings true for both Gibbs boys as well.

Hamlin, who has made the Chase in all four full seasons, had a golden opportunity in his rookie year of 2006, when he finished third a scant 68 points behind Johnson. Last season, Hamlin won at Richmond – the Chase cutoff race – and then again at Martinsville and Miami. Were it not for two DNFs (Charlotte/Talladega – where he was running well) and his self-confessed driver error when leading at a restart at Fontana, 2009 might have had a very different look.

Busch, meanwhile, has made the Chase three times out of five, missing out last season by just eight points – the closest ever margin. In 2008, he won eight times in the first 26 races but imploded in the first few weeks of the Chase fading to a hideously disappointing 10th-place finish.

Both drivers, then, know the pain of losing one. Will 2010 be the year one of them rectifies it all and finally claims another Cup title for Joe Gibbs Racing?

Maybe. And if it is the case, there’s another single word that speaks volumes for why: Maturation.

We’ve heard a lot, of late, about the “new” improved Kyle Busch and there are really two schools of thought.

Hamlin was initially succinct. “There is no new Kyle. That’s just a complete myth,” he said with a smile. Hamlin then expanded, “I think you all need to look back in your stories over the last two years and every time he wins you all say, ‘It’s the new Kyle’ and whenever he loses, you say, ‘It’s the same ol’ Kyle, I think we only hear about it when he wins.”

Kyle’s older brother and 2004 Cup champ Kurt adds perspective. Commenting on his younger brother’s recent engagement and Truck Series team ownership Busch said, “Those things that happen to you in life make you grow up a little quicker. I’m happy for him. He’s still going to continue to charge hard. He’s going to go after those wins. You just can’t write that was, ‘Hey, a good Kyle Busch or bad Kyle Busch’ when things happen. The things that you get to write are that he’s going through life changes and he’s maturing. He’s not 22 years old anymore.”

Denny’s path to enlightenment, if you will, has really come since the Richmond cutoff race last season. Since then, Hamlin’s won six of the 22 races – an impressive 27% clip. It’s almost as if a light switch went off in his head, as he finally found a way to win races he should win (having lost in his estimation at least 10 prior victories.) Then, after an ACL tear on the verge of Daytona, and a very rough start to the season, Hamlin injured his already ailing knee further and opted for surgery. I firmly believe you have no idea how bad an ACL surgery is until you’ve experienced it yourself, a procedure that could have easily sidelined him for several races. Instead, since he’s come back – and gritted it out two laps down for his team at Phoenix – Hamlin has driven like a man possessed. As he said when he crossed the stripe under the green flag at Darlington, “All we do is win.” And on the evidence of the last 20 some races, he’s right on the money with that theory.

There is still a long way to go in 2010. 15 more races until the Chase field is set. But it’s telling how much both Joe Gibbs racers have developed this year. Kyle has got rid of his Ricky Bobby “checkers or wreckers” approach and Hamlin has found a way to close the deal, dispelling the myth that he’s just a “flattrack bully.” How it will all play out for the odd couple remains to be seen – and like I say, there’s a bucket load of miles to run first – but on the early evidence of 2010, expect Hamlin and Busch to be right there by the time the circuit swings into Homestead for the Championship weekend.