(Eds: With AP Photos.) By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer There was a noticeable change in Denny Hamlin three years ago when he finally broke through for his first career victory at his home track in Richmond.
He was soaring when he left the speedway with the one trophy he had coveted his entire life. Convinced he could not be stopped, he raced that way the rest of the year and flirted with the Sprint Cup championship.
That attitude stayed with him into 2010, when he won a career-high eight races and took Jimmie Johnson to the wire in the championship race. But Hamlin fumbled away the title in the finale, and it took him a year to recover.
Now, on the three-year anniversary of that Richmond victory, Hamlin is headed home to Virginia with his confidence through the roof again.
''It's very similar to how I felt in 2009,'' he said. ''I'd say for sure I haven't felt this good since then.''
He has every reason to feel invincible. He signed a long-term contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing this summer, and is expecting a baby girl early next year with his longtime girlfriend.
And he is winning again, too.
Hamlin's Sunday night victory at Atlanta, where he held off Jeff Gordon on the final restart, was his second in a row and Sprint Cup Series-best fourth of the season. It pushed him ahead in what had been a four-way tie for the top seed in the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and gave him a shot at putting some distance on the field.
He is guaranteed at least a three-point advantage over most of the Chase field. A victory Saturday night at Richmond - where he has two wins, has led 1,188 laps and an average finish of 7.3 - would give him a six-point cushion on the field.
A year after Carl Edwards lost the championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, every driver knows collecting bonus points are critical. It's why Hamlin was adamant two weeks ago after his Bristol win that he could close out the regular season with two more victories and break the tie at the top.
''I think every point is going to matter,'' he said.
But how did he know he was going to win again? He has come a long way over the last three years, learning how to race for a championship, losing a title and then suffering through a demoralizing hangover season. It has all taught Hamlin how to be prepared for this year's Chase.
''It's amazing to learn that when I really put my game face on what I am capable of doing,'' Hamlin said. ''We are as good as anyone on the race track when things are going well and we have good cars.''
Hamlin came into this season determined to prove to his doubters that he is an elite driver who takes his job very seriously.
His outside passions - golf, basketball, celebrity friends, ownership of a Charlotte nightclub - have sometimes raised questions about his focus. Hamlin admitted before the season-opening Daytona 500 that it bothered him but as long as his performance was high, he has a right to live as he chooses.
Coming to peace with that came after sessions with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who helped Hamlin last year when he couldn't shake the blues following his 2010 loss to Johnson.
''The one thing I learned with ol' Bob Rotella is you've got to live in the moment,'' Hamlin said. ''Whatever happens, happens. I'm not going to live in the result. I'm just going to do the best I can at that particular time.''
And, he plans to tune out all the talk when the Chase begins. He is convinced some will chalk him up as the guy who coughed up the title in 2010.
''I know what I am going to hear if we are in it toward the end - `Is this deja vu? Has he turned it around? Has he learned from (2010)?''' Hamlin said. ''For me, I don't care anymore. I don't care that people thought we lost the championship in the last race. Well, we did.''
Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs said the organization was unaware of how badly Hamlin struggled after losing the championship.
''I didn't see him physically struggling last year, but obviously there was something there. It was a hard year,'' said Gibbs. ''I think you learn. I think you learn things you need to do differently. He's always pretty confident, although last year he was shaken a little bit. But he's in a good place.''
Hamlin wants to shake off any pressure and make his mark in NASCAR. He insists he'll be fine wherever he ends up at the end of the season.
''All I can do is the best I can do. If it's not good enough, then it's not good enough,'' he said. ''I am going against who in my opinion is the best driver in NASCAR history, Jimmie Johnson. If I beat him at year's end for the championship, then I'll consider myself the best, at least for one year.
''I have no question in believing I am as good as anyone. But I think until you have a championship people are not going to give you the respect they give the Stewarts, the Gordons, the Johnsons. You are just going to be that middle of the road guy that people are just hot and cold about all the time.''