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Did Richmond Put Hamlin Back On the Rails?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 6 2011

Denny Hamlin got his first NASCAR victory of the season last weekend when he won the Nationwide race at Richmond. (RacinToday.com/HHP photo by Erik J. Perel)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

What has transpired  so far in 2011 for Denny Hamlin is definitely not what he had in mind after the disappointment of last season.

After coming up short while making a great run at a NASCAR Sprint Cup title a year ago, Hamlin likely spent the winter dreaming about how he’d use all the knowledge and experience he gained in the grueling title fight with eventual winner Jimmie Johnson to get to that No. 1 position.

Now, nine races into the new year, Hamlin is 17th in the point standings and hoping  to use last week’s runner-up finish at Richmond as the catalyst to go on a tear and get back into contention. Despite losing to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch at Richmond, the performance by Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team was only it’s second top-10 of the Cup season and by far its best showing of 2011.

Not only  that, but Hamlin also got a renewed taste of success with a victory in the Nationwide race at the .75-mile Virginia track. That visit to Victory Circle was a big boost to Hamlin, even if it wasn’t in the big show.

Now Hamlin is hoping that the strong showing at Richmond will regain some of the magic he had last year when he  won eight Cup races and ran at or near the front just about every weekend.

“Any small victory goes a long way.  … It’s just one big snowball that’s just rolling and rolling and,

After getting a victory a week ago in the Nationwide Series race at Richmond, Denny Hamlin is hoping for a brighter future. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

hopefully, it goes on and continues on,’’ Hamlin said.

His first win of 2011 was also a big win for other reasons.

“For me, (the Nationwide victory) was a particularly special win because I started my career with the (No.) 20 car,’’ Hamlin noted.  “It’s good to see those guys back in victory lane.  We were able to get (current Cup crew chief) Kevin Kidd  his first win last year and, obviously, Adam (Stevens, crew chief) this year.

“JGR is so deep within their personnel they are able to just put guys in positions and they’re able to succeed because of the people around them and what they’ve learned.  Adam is just another chip off the old block, as far as the crew chiefs at J GR continuing to be successful.”

But the Nationwide Series is not Hamlin’s main focus. And, now heading to Darlington this week, he knows it’s important to try to get some kind of hot streak going. And, with the new Chase rules, a couple of wins would likely insure his being part of the Chase for the championship.

“Everyone’s so smart inside that Cup garage, it’s hard to keep up,’’ Hamlin said. “It’s so hard to keep it when you do have an edge.  When I say I need to figure out how to win, I need to learn more tricks. I need to figure out more things to do to be better. That’s what I got to do right now.’’

Of course, it’s helpful that the Cup series is now embarked on a series of races at tracks where Hamlin has had some success.

Richmond has been one of his best tracks and now comes Darlington, where Hamlin has four top-10s in five Cup starts and has never finished worse than 13th. His record at “The track too tough to tame”  includes a win last spring.

So, after the rough start and some bleak days, Hamlin is now feeling pretty optimistic.

“Usually, it’s about five, six races before we kind of get going,’’ he explained. “Maybe it’s just this year.  Maybe it’s taken us a few extra races.

“We know when we come to these racetracks we’re going to be contenders for a win.  I never even thought about one struggle that we had earlier in the year when we came to Richmond.  It’s like, `Okay, we should win, regardless of what has happened’.  You forget about all that when you go to a racetrack (where)  you have a lot of success.  Hopefully, this is the point in which we turn it around.”

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 6 2011
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