Denny Hamlin heads home with confidence soaring

Associated Press  |  Last updated September 05, 2012
(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.''
GET THE YARDBARKER APP:
Ios_download En_app_rgb_wo_45
MORE FROM YARDBARKER

Report: Blake Griffin opts out of contract to become free agent

Report: Wolves targeting Kyle Lowry, Jrue Holiday, other point guards in free agency

Conor McGregor’s coach says tentative plans include a return to UFC in 2017

Report: Mets open for business on the trade market

Markelle Fultz believes the Sixers are already a playoff team

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
GET THE DAILY NEWSLETTER:

Report: Jimmy Butler’s attitude toward Fred Hoiberg made players ‘uncomfortable’

St. Louis Cardinals to hold first LGBTQ Pride Night

John Mara: Extending Odell Beckham Jr. isn’t team’s No. 1 priority

Mike Trout reportedly wanted to sign ‘lifetime deal’ with Angels

Blackhawks, Blue Jackets swap Artemi Panarin, Brandon Saad

Matt Forte expected to be ‘offensive workhorse’ for Jets?

Best of Yardbarker: Diana Taurasi makes history

The 'Finest running back from America’s Finest City' quiz

Players who need to turn around their season to save their teams

Sports & Politics Intersect: Washington gets a rare win

Three Up, Three Down: Flouting the written and unwritten rules of baseball

2016-17 NBA Awards: The Billy King Award for worst trade

Kicking it: David Villa isn't interested in a 'retirement tour'

Box Score 6/23: Philly continues to trust the process

The 10 best sports docs available for streaming

Feeding your roundball addiction through the summer months

The 'NBA Draft going back to school?' quiz

2016-17 NBA Awards: The Gary Payton Award for best trash talk of the year

All Sports News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

By clicking "Sign Me Up", you have read and agreed to the Fox Sports Digital Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. You can opt out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.
the YARDBARKER app
Get it now!
Ios_download En_app_rgb_wo_45

Best of Yardbarker: Diana Taurasi makes history

The 'Finest running back from America’s Finest City' quiz

2016-17 NBA Awards: The Billy King Award for worst trade

Players who need to turn around their season to save their teams

Three Up, Three Down: Flouting the written and unwritten rules of baseball

Sports & Politics Intersect: Washington gets a rare win

Kicking it: David Villa isn't interested in a 'retirement tour'

The 10 best sports docs available for streaming

Feeding your roundball addiction through the summer months

The 'NBA Draft going back to school?' quiz

Today's Best Stuff
For Publishers
Company Info
Help
Follow Yardbarker