Hamlin embraces second chance at a title

Seth Livingstong - NASCAR Wire Service Saturday, Nov 08 1564

Unless and until Denny Hamlin wins his first Sprint Cup championship, the legacy of Phoenix International Raceway and the 2010 season will haunt one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers.

But failure to seize opportunity had to be the furthest thing from Hamlin’s mind when dusk turned to darkness in the desert on Saturday.

His eyes were fixed on his not-quite-2-year-old daughter Taylor as the toddler wandered warily toward the media center stage. At the microphone, Daddy was discussing winning his third pole of the season and leading all drivers in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup with two races to go.

It was a chance for Hamlin to exhale, embrace the moment and think about all the future might hold.

Capturing his 20th career pole had come as a pleasant surprise. His car had been far from terrific in practice. He attributed his fast lap, in part, to knowing the track and hitting his marks precisely.

Oh, yes, he’s been here before, literally and figuratively.

But he tries not to think about 2010 and what might have been.

Hamlin not only came to Arizona leading the Chase standings by 33 points, he led 190 laps at Phoenix that November Sunday and would have likely cruised to victory if not for ill-fated fuel strategy that forced him to pit with 14 laps to go. That relegated him to a 12th-place finish and reduced his lead to 15 points over reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who took command from the outset when the chips were on the table the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“You know, I don't think about it actually that often unless we're watching a highlight film or something like that,” said Hamlin, who earlier this week admitted to the hangover effect when he got to Homestead. “In 2010, I feel like at Homestead I was still kind of bummed about what happened at Phoenix. I think every now and then about what we could have done differently. But you can't really second-guess.”

This Sunday’s Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 (on ESPN at 3 p.m. ET) could go a long way toward exorcising those demons and Hamlin, once again, knows that he controls his own destiny, even though his path to the championship is not nearly so clear-cut.

Although he is tied with Joey Logano for the lead in points, eight drivers are still very much in contention for the crown. Only the top four will advance to next week’s Championship Weekend with those title hopes still intact.

“We were racing less guys, for sure,” says Hamlin, recalling the final races of the 2010 season, including his victory at Texas Motor Speedway, his career-high eighth win of the season that propelled him to the edge of glory. “There was a point in the year where myself, Jimmie and Kevin (Harvick) had kind of broken ourselves away from the pack. Now, there are obviously more players in the game.”

And, with just one victory under his belt in 2014 (Talladega), Hamlin is hardly brimming with the supreme confidence bred by repeated trips to Victory Lane four years ago.

“I don’t feel like our performance is (at) as high of a level as it was then,” Hamlin said. “So, that’s more of an obstacle.”

That’s why Saturday’s pole-winning performance was so important from a mental standpoint in addition to gaining the physical advantages of leading the field and pit stall selection.

“It definitely came out of the blue from my perspective,” Hamlin said. “I didn’t think we had a pole-winning car. I thought (starting in) the top eight would have been a huge bonus. But this showed that we have speed in the car. We just have to figure out how to get it optimized for 312 laps around this race track on Sunday.”

In part, Hamlin thanks the new Chase format for keeping his team in contention. “The best thing that happened (to this sport) in a long time,” he said.

“Even though some of the better teams throughout the entire year will probably get eliminated this weekend, other teams will be moving on. You still have to go through the due process of making it all the way to the end. The best record in any other sport does not guarantee you to be in the championship matchup.”

He also thanks crew chief Darian Grubb and his team at Joe Gibbs Racing.

“The adjustments just kept getting better and better,” Hamlin said. “Darian and the whole FedEx Ground team kept making my Camry better (on Saturday). That allowed me to drive harder and harder.”

It’s not as though Hamlin has not experienced success at Phoenix. He won at PIR in March 2012, one of five wins that season when he matched a career-high with 14 top five finishes.

But the rewards have been slim the last two seasons, particularly last year when he was sidelined early in the season by a fractured vertebrae.

This season has not been without incident. In fact, having missed the fifth points race of the season at Auto Club Speedway due to a sliver of metal in his eye, Hamlin has the chance to become the first driver since Richard Petty in 1971 to win a Cup title without competing in every race.

But first things, first. With the eight Cup contenders separated by just 18 points, Hamlin must survive Sunday at Phoenix before he can even begin thinking about a trophy run at Homestead. A finish of 11th or better will assure him a spot in the final four, but Hamlin isn’t thinking that way.

“I think the competition level is just too close and tight to be able to think that you’re going to be able to coast to an 11th place,” he said. “Nowadays, the difference between 11th and third and 20th is not that much. You’ve got to go all out every single lap and fight for every position on restarts. There is no backing into this thing and coasting our way to Homestead.

“Our team has done a good job of grinding our way through this. We haven’t beaten ourselves with bad finishes. Now, we have an opportunity.”

That opportunity begins with a second chance at Phoenix – a chance for Hamlin to permanently leave those demons in the rear view mirror.