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Hamlin Wants Name On Cup, Not On Picks Lists

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, January 28 2011

Denny Hamlin told those who attended the annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte that he knows he will not be a popular pick to dethrone Jimmie Johnson. (HHP/Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Many of he biggest, most serious media predictions about who will do what in the upcoming Sprint Cup season have not been released quite yet. But when they do start hitting the streets, Denny Hamlin has no illusions about where he will find his name.

Not at the top, the 29-year-old driver for Joe Gibbs Racing said this week. That is, not like last year when people had made him an early favorite to unseat then-four-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Hamlin said on the final day of the NASCAR Media Tour, which is sponsored by Charlotte Motor Speedway and held in the Charlotte area each January, “I think last year going into 2010 there were probably more expectations than what there are for myself this year. I think everyone is expecting a letdown year.”

Hamlin’s 2010 season marked one of those rare times when a pre-season hot pick actually turned out to be a good pick.

He followed his impressive 2009 season – in which he won four races, two Chase races, the season finale at Homestead and finished fifth in points – with a super-impressive big-swing-at-the-champ 2010 season.

Hamlin won a series-tops eight races last year; all coming after he blew out his knee in a basketball game. He again won twice in the Chase and he headed to

A victory at Martinsville in the Chase moved Denny Hamlin close to the championship last year. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Homestead with a slim points lead over Johnson.

Hamlin finished 14th at Homestead but that was not good enough as Johnson finished second to win his fifth straight Cup championship.

Bummer, he said.

Asked about the final two weeks of 2010, Hamlin said, “I think just after Phoenix (when he finished 12th in a fuel mileage race) in general it was tough because we go from leaving one race track knowing we pretty much just have to run mid-pack to lock it up to now we’ve got to go out there and race hard.

“And then you qualify bad (37th at Homestead) and it’s just like, ‘Man, I just have a bad feeling about this.’  It’s tough to overcome that, and especially when you have negative energy and negative thoughts like that. I think it just wasn’t meant to be. There were so many instances in that Chase where it was over, it should’ve been over but it just didn’t happen. So, it just wasn’t meant to be for us that year.”

But, Hamlin said, when he left the year-end awards banquet a couple weeks after Homestead, he left negative thoughts about 2010 in Las Vegas as well.

He said he will head into 2011 not feeling that he has something to prove; that 2010 was a not a quirk or a blip.

“I hate driving feeling like you have something to prove,” Hamlin said. “I feel like drivers that drive

Denny Hamlin blew a knee early in the season but not his championship chances. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for NASCAR)

with a chip on their shoulder don’t do as well as they should, but there’s always a sense of wanting to be the best. I feel like I’m one of the toughest competitors in the garage and that doesn’t necessarily mean about racing.

“Everything that I ever do, I’m so competitive and I hate losing – that’s what fuels my racing drive. That’s why I chose racing back when I was a kid, is that it’s you versus the other guys. The cars were all meant to be the same and the drivers are supposed to work it out. That is what I loved about racing, is the challenge of beating someone heads up. It doesn’t matter what I do, that fire will never ever change and I will continue to be the sorest of losers.”

And to those who leave him off of their top-contender list for 2011, Hamlin said: Big mistake.

He’s going for it hard again. Harder than last year. Simply has to, he said.

“It’s always championship or bust,” Hamlin said. “But, for me, if I don’t win the championship then I’ve took a step back because I finished second in points. If I finish third, how am I going to consider that a successful year?  I just took a step back from where I was last year. And, you see over the last four years we’ve jumped three spots in the points every year over these last four years or so.

“For me, there’s only one more spot to move up and I’m going to go into this year with a whole lot more knowledge of what I need to do and what I need to work on from this point forward. I think that the advantage that I have probably over Jimmie (Johnson) or Kevin (Harvick, who made it a three-driver race in the Chase) or any of those guys is I’m in my sixth year here. I’m still learning a whole lot about these cars and things like that.

“Those guys have been in the sport for 10 years now. They’ve had a lot of opportunities. Me, I’ve had really two legitimate shots to win a championship in my first five years of my career. There’s a lot that I’ve learned and it’s all about making sure that I execute that and do the things in my head that I know that I need to do.”

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

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, January 28 2011
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