- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

RICHMOND — When he was 4 or 5 years old, according to a friend, Denny Hamlin used to tear up the back fields on the family ATV, no small feat considering the family owned a horse farm.

Of course, he also owned Cabbage Patch dolls and owns up to it, which says a lot about his level of self-confidence.

Hamlin, 25, has come a long way in a short time from the pastures and dolls to the upper echelon of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing. He is within one good finish of becoming the first rookie to be in NASCAR’s playoff, the 10-event Chase for the Cup, with the tournament winner crowned 2006 champion.

“He’s the real thing,” said Joe Gibbs, football coach of some note and owner of three Nextel Cup teams, including Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet. “I think we have a young star in Denny and there’s no telling what he’s going to be able to do. We’re excited.”

And chances are good Gibbs’ excitement will grow.

Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Va., just south of Richmond, is 25 races into his rookie Nextel Cup season. The final qualifying race for the Cup is tonight at sold-out Richmond International Raceway, Hamlin’s home track, where he finished second in his only Cup race there.

The pole-sitter for tonight’s race, Hamlin is seventh in the Cup standings, but only two drivers in the top 10 have clinched. Nine others are vying for eight spots and any of them, from No. 3 through 10, could miss the playoff. Or all nine could make it, the improbable being entirely possible, this being NASCAR.

(A rule change a week ago stipulates that if two or more drivers tie for the final spot, all make the playoff field.)

To illustrate the closeness of the race, Hamlin is seventh with 3,225 points, 71 points out of third place but only 76 points short of possible elimination. He needs to finish 16th or better tonight to guarantee he will be the first rookie in the title hunt.

But, the rookie seemingly is taking it in stride.

“I’m really not feeling any pressure. Performance-wise we should be able to get in with no problem,” Hamlin said. “We’re fast enough. I really feel the only thing that could take us out of this is something happening — getting caught pitting out of sequence, getting caught up in a crash, blowing a motor, cutting a tire, anything. There’s a lot of things that can get you a 20 or 30th-place finish. The things that you can’t help are the things that could bite us.”

The season did not open on a winning note.

Hamlin started 17th in the Daytona 500 but finished 30th, about where a rookie might expect to finish. He failed to complete the April 2 race at Martinsville, Va., but other than those two races, he has posted anything but rookie performances.

“He’s definitely mature beyond his years, very savvy,” said Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the men who scouted Hamlin when he was a teenager running and winning on Virginia short tracks. “He acts like he’s got 10 years’ experience, knowing when to take chances, when not to; what situations are bad; how to be patient, how not to get in over your head — all the things that typically take a lot of time for young drivers. He has talent, anybody can see that, and he can go fast, but there’s more to it than that.

“When he jumped into the race car right off the get-go you saw he had all those attributes that take others so long to learn, if they do at all. He didn’t take unnecessary chances. He knows when to push, when to back down a little. Where he got that, I have no idea. Usually you need lots of experience.”

His parents, Dennis and Mary Lou, had a lot to do with that experience. A used, beat-up go-kart replaced the ATV with similar results: Hamlin won his first race. Then came 4-cylinder Mini Stock and Grand Stock divisions at Southside Speedway, followed by Late Model stocks on a regional level. In 2003 and 2004 he took 57 poles and won 54 races in 83 starts in the Late Model competition. He was a name.

“He’s not conceited, but he always thought he was a superstar, at least in his own mind,” said Buck Reuss, a long-time family friend and employee at Southside Speedway in Midlothian, Va., just a short drive across town from RIR. “You hear people change when they get popular but not Denny. He’s always felt he had the talent to do what he’s doing. I think right now he’s disappointed he’s not closer to the top. He’s very confident in his abilities.”

Which might explain why he didn’t seem at all embarrassed to reveal he owned Cabbage Patch dolls. That admission came during a joint interview with teammate J.J. Yeley and Yeley, also a promising rookie driver for Gibbs, won’t let it die.

Comparisons are made between Jeff Gordon and Hamlin during the early stages of Gordon’s career. Gordon was also mature and patient while waiting for better opportunities to present themselves, instead of forcing an issue with lesser results.

“Ever since Denny started he’d get behind the best driver in the field during practice and follow him for five or six laps,” Reuss said. “He’d figure where the guy’s weakness was and use that against him in the feature. He does that today. What Denny has done in his rookie season is what he’s done in all the other series. He’s won at every level. Every time he gets in a car he learns something new and retains it for later use.”

That was never more evident than two weeks ago at Bristol, Tenn., the fabled short track that routinely turns beautiful sheet metal into crumpled scrap. Hamlin was running well, inside the top 10, and might have been able to push for more. But the possible playoff scenario dictated holding back, settling for sixth, rather than risking a wreck.

“Denny did an excellent job,” crew chief Mike Ford said. “He was very patient. I think he was the only rookie on the lead lap and that speaks highly of his patience and knowledge of what he needs to do. We probably could have forced the issue but, keeping the big picture in mind, he didn’t want to force anything that wasn’t there.”

There are 725,760 different possibilities for the order of finish of the top 11 drivers in tonight’s race, according to NASCAR. Hamlin knows he will be there but is not sure where. Kasey Kahne, the outsider in 11th place, could win the race and still not make the Chase.

Nothing is guaranteed and Hamlin, a realist, knows that.

“We kind of woke up and found ourselves in this points battle,” he said. “We didn’t do it by going out there and winning a ton of races, we were just solid. It seems like we’re a fifth- or a 10th-place car every week.

“To run outside the top 10 and consider it a bad day this early in my career is definitely a good thing.”

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