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Hamlin Has A Good Feeling In His Gut

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 2 2010

Denny Hamlin says he is running the best he has ever run in the Sprint Cup Series. Is he running well enough? (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Kansas City, Kan. – Denny Hamlin’s epiphanic moment of 2010 came at what should have been the low moment of the season.

It was at Atlanta Motor Speedway five weeks ago. The engine in Hamlin’s Toyota blew up in a greasy cloud of blue smoke. Hamlin limped the car back to the garages, parked it and was credited with a last-place finish.

And Hamlin smiled.

“To me,” he said this week, “that was a positive thing.”

Say what?

“Yes, because as bad as we wanted to win Atlanta, our car was so dominant that day. And, I was having so much fun playing with the competition,” Hamlin said. “I knew this car was our Chase car (or a twin sister to other Chase cars in the stable), that this was going to be our bread and butter when it came to Chase time and it was so dominant.

“So, I was confident that even though we had a blown engine, we had cars good enough to win races.”

Since Atlanta, Hamlin has finished first at Richmond, second at New Hampshire and ninth at Dover. This weekend he is at Kansas Speedway for the Price Chopper 400.

He is in first place on the eve of the fourth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, 35 ahead of four-time champion Jimmie Johnson and more than 100 points ahead of four of the other 11 drivers in the Chase.

In no way is he celebrating an imminent championship, but he is feeling that that championship is within his reach.

“What my gut tells me is that this is the best I’ve ever run over the course of a season,” Hamlin said. “And last year, our performance really was good enough to win a championship had it not been for some blown engines here and there.

“For me, last year we very well could have won it. This year, I am much better than I was last year and we are in a better spot. To me, it seems like all the pieces are put together in the right places.”

Credit the position his team is in this year to improved maturity, he said.

“We’ve matured together,” Hamlin said. “The whole team has. It’s the same core group of people and I just feel now is the time.

“This has been our biggest bounce-back year in that when we have a bad finish, it doesn’t affect our team. When we leave the race track, we are done with it. That is something that championship teams have over other teams. Their ability to let bad weekends go.”

Standing in his way right now, Hamlin figures, is a group of about four other drivers. Drivers whose games he knows well. Drivers whose faces Hamlin knows well.

He knows their games well because they are all successful veterans of Sprint Cup, and he knows the faces because photos of those drivers – plus one other – are pinned to his Joe Gibbs Racing bulletin board.

Those photos are on that board, Hamlin said, as motivation.

“Right now, it’s who wants it the most. I want it more than those guys,” Hamlin said.

Who are those five? They are Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Hamlin.

Five is another number on Hamlin’s mind this weekend.

Each week, Hamlin sets a number where he wants to finish in a race. It is his target, his goal. That number or better. It takes into account history at the track, his liking of the track, conditions etc.

This week, the number is five. He wants to finish fifth or better and if he does, he flies out of Kansas City satisfied.

Hamlin will start fifth on Sunday and he finished fifth at Kansas last year. But before that, his average finish in four starts was 24th. He did win the Nationwide Series race at Kansas two years ago.

A fifth-place finish would keep him in the lead heading to Auto Club Speedway.

“It’s right there in front of us,” Hamlin said of winning the championship. “All we have to do is reach out and grab it.”

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 2 2010
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