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Minter: Hamlin May Just Be Getting Warmed Up

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 14 2010

Denny Hamlin got his fifth victory of the season Sunday at Michigan. How many more will he get this year? (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

As I sat and watched Denny Hamlin knock out a runaway win at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, his fifth in the past 10 Sprint Cup races, I thought back to an interview with Hamlin last year at Talladega Superspeedway, when he wasn’t winning nearly as often.

We talked about his set-backs and disappointments, particularly at his home track, Richmond International Raceway, where he finally got his breakthrough win last fall.

But even as we focused on races he didn’t win, he left the impression that he had no doubt that one day his luck would change in a big way.

“I’m going to win about 20 races one year, going to go on a rampage,” he said with a big smile on his face. “People will wonder what’s going on, but it’ll just be me getting paid back.”

I also thought about an interview earlier this year at Daytona, where Hamlin insisted that his team was focused more on preparing for the Chase than for the 26-race regular season.

“I don’t think anyone should look at us until September to be honest with you – the way we’re setting up our season,” he said.

On Sunday in his winner’s interview at Michigan, Hamlin maintained that the best is still yet to come.

“I think there are some aspects of our race team that can get better,” he said. “I think our pit crew has definitely stepped up.  I feel like my communication with Mike (Ford, crew chief) has stepped up.  What I’m telling Mike and then applying to the race car has gotten better.

Denny Hamlin takes the checkered flag at Michigan. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

But where is the limit on it?  I feel like each week that we show up, we just set our bar a little bit higher than it was the week before.”

Ford agreed with Hamlin.

“Towards the end of last season where I said the best is yet to come, I strongly feel that way because towards the end of last season we closed out the season strong,” he said. “I knew that was a catalyst to really turn up the team, to get a little bit more out of everyone.  We come into this season and we do.

“Denny goes down with his knee injury. He comes back obviously not a hundred percent. The team steps up. We narrow the gap to try to pick him up knowing he’s not going to be there, and we start winning races, even with a driver that’s not a hundred percent.  Now that he’s coming back healthier each week, we’re winning more and more. I simply think that’s the catalyst for us to move forward….

“We’re trying to catch up to ourselves. Our benchmark is ourselves and we’re just trying to work on that.”

One factor that seems to be getting overlooked in Hamlin’s recent run is the fact that when times were tough, and races weren’t going their way, Hamlin and Ford stayed the course. The driver didn’t demand a new crew chief or try to hop to another team, and the crew chief did the same.

Hamlin also did some quick growing up. The strongest compliment I’ve heard about him lately came from a Gibbs employee who said the difference in Denny Hamlin today and when he first became a Cup star is that today he truly listens to conversations, where before he seemed ready to bolt at the first opportunity.

That reminded me of our interview last year at Talladega, where Hamlin took off his sunglasses and looked me directly in the eye as he answered my questions.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, June 14 2010
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