Denny Hamlin minds business as Sprint Cup season nears

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin is just fine, but thanks for asking.

Of course, nobody really believed that Hamlin was OK after losing the 2010 championship to Jimmie Johnson in the season finale.

He moped for a good while, and, although he’s quiet by nature, he seemed withdrawn.

When his mood never really improved, and his results on the racetrack slipped significantly, people began to openly wonder about Hamlin’s psyche.

As he starts a fresh season with a new crew chief, Hamlin is determined to show he’s not a head case and can win a Sprint Cup title. Although he acknowledged late last season to working with noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, Hamlin said he’s got everything under control.

“People make a big deal out of this whole Bob Rotella thing. I saw him twice. Twice. In a two-hour period,” Hamlin said. “It’s not like I’m seeing the guy weekly and I’ve got serious problems. But, basically, it was how excited am I supposed to be? Or, how am I not supposed to hang my head when we run like absolute [junk]?

“I’m embarrassed. I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want to be seen because I viewed myself as pathetic last year the way we ran.”

Indeed, 2011 was a steep drop-off from his near-championship run.

Hamlin won eight races in 2010 and took a 15-point lead over Johnson into the season finale. But he concedes now he didn’t have a shot at winning the title, largely because of a devastating result the week before at Phoenix.

Hamlin dominated in the desert and seemed headed to a victory that would have likely put the nail in Johnson’s reign of four straight titles. Instead, a miscalculation on fuel forced him to make a late pit stop. He finished 12th, Johnson was fifth, and Hamlin never recovered.

He was a nervous wreck the entire weekend at Homestead - Johnson and fellow title contender Kevin Harvick openly mocked Hamlin’s perceived fragility - and it showed in a poor qualifying effort, an early on-track incident, and a flat, 14th-place finish.

Hamlin ultimately lost the title by 39 points.

“In Homestead, for sure I knew that we were in trouble. Even with the point lead - people never get over that Game 6 where they lost,” he said. “I never felt it. You know you feel like, `OK, this is it, this is our day to win the championship?’ Just something about it [race day morning], and I never felt it.”

That hangover carried into 2011. Hamlin won just one race and barely made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He finished ninth in the final series standings, and crew chief Mike Ford was replaced a few weeks later by Darian Grubb, who had just led Tony Stewart to the championship.

Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip likened Hamlin’s plight to his 11-point loss to Richard Petty in the 1979 title race. Although Waltrip won five races the next year, he finished fifth in the standings and changed teams in 1981.

Denny Hamlin had to get another crew chief. It is hard on you mentally, it really takes its toll when you invest everything you’ve got - energy, emotion - in trying to win the championship, and you come up short,” Waltrip said. “It drains you.”

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