Denny Hamlin’s first NASCAR championship was earned in a mini stock at Langley Speedway in his native Virginia. Seventeen years later, he’s positioned to reach the pinnacle of the profession.
Hamlin’s start in stock car racing began in the entry-level divisions of local weekly racing tracks like Langley in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s he had moved up to the feature division late model stocks and started to venture out beyond his Chesterfield, Virginia, home base.
Success followed everywhere he went.
Flash forward to 2014, where Hamlin is one of four contenders for the sport’s ultimate prize, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman head to Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) as the Championship 4 contenders, each with a chance to become a first-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series titlist.
While they took different routes to reach Sunday’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway as finalists, like Hamlin, each has a direct connection to NASCAR’s grassroots regional touring and weekly series.
- Harvick’s first stock car crown was earned at Mesa Marin Raceway in 1993, two years before NASCAR began sanctioning weekly competition at the track in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. But he wouldn’t have to wait long to get a championship under the NASCAR banner. Following Rookie of the Year honors in the former NASCAR Southwest Tour in 1995, Harvick scored five wins in 14 races en route to the 1998 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West title as a 22-year-old. It was his only full-time season in the series, and he captured the championship while simultaneously competing full-time in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
- Logano ushered in a new era of K&N Pro Series competition when he dominated as a teen in 2007. The Middletown, Connecticut, native’s lone regional touring series season during his meteoric rise up the NASCAR Ladder began with a win in his debut at Phoenix International Raceway in K&N Pro Series West action and included five more victories en route to the championship and Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the K&N Pro Series East. Logano’s signature moment came in the inaugural K&N Pro Series East-West combination race at Iowa Speedway when he beat Harvick – by then well established in the Sprint Cup Series – to the checkered flag just four days shy of his 17th birthday.
- Newman may not have come up through NASCAR’s regional touring system, but he has become a frequent fixture in the cockpit of the No. 7NY when the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. Over the last seven years, the South Bend, Indiana, wheelman has compiled four wins and 12 top 10s in 18 races driving as part of a team formed by crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion and car chief Gary Putnam, who got their start on the tour on the way to Sprint Cup Series careers. An additional modified win came in the inaugural Whelen All-Star Shootout this past July at New Hampshire.
· Hamlin was a rising star in 2003 in the late model world and the season proved to be the launching pad. Twenty-two years old at the time, Hamlin exploded with 25 wins, 30 poles and the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series track championship at Southern National Motorsports Park in North Carolina. The experience gained at those southeastern NASCAR short tracks proved to be such a solid foundation that Hamlin made his debut in the Sprint Cup Series just two years removed from that breakout 2003 late model campaign.
Like Newman, Hamlin’s involvement at the grassroots level continues today with the annual Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown late model event – held at South Boston in 2014 – that benefits the Denny Hamlin Foundation and pits weekly racers and up-and-coming talent against competitors from the sport’s upper echelon.
The Championship 4 will not be the only drivers whose careers have been heavily influenced by NASCAR’s touring and weekly series who will be racing for championship trophies at Homestead this weekend.
Chase Elliott, who spent the 2011-12 seasons in the K&N Pro Series East, has already clinched the NASCAR Nationwide Series crown as a rookie this year. Elliott’s first NASCAR win came in the K&N Pro Series East-West combo race at Iowa in 2012, and he is the first driver who was part of the NASCAR Next program to win a national series championship. The NASCAR Next program is an industry initiative designed to spotlight the sport’s rising stars and began in 2011. Fellow NASCAR Next alum Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr., who also scored their first NASCAR win in the K&N Pro Series, are among the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title challengers.
With the 2014 seasons complete at the regional touring and weekly level, the current crop of top talent is set to descend upon Charlotte, North Carolina, to be recognized for their accomplishments. The Charlotte Convention Center at the NASCAR Hall of Fame will play host to the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Awards on Friday, Dec. 12 and the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards on Saturday, Dec. 13.