Hamlin confident it's his time
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Denny Hamlin turns 30 on Nov. 18, three days before the 2010 Sprint Cup championship is decided. This is his fifth Cup season.
Is now the right time to get it done?
"I don't know that my biological clock is ticking," Hamlin said, which brought a hearty laugh from the reporters listening at his hauler. "I have a few good years left. If we get it this year, it would be sooner than I expected and younger in age that I would expect."
Sooner is looking pretty good. Hamlin trails Jimmie Johnson by only 14 points heading into the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday.
Winning a first Cup title near the 5/30 mark has happened several times over the years:
• Johnson: fifth season, age 31 (2006).
• Tony Stewart: fourth season, 31 (2002).
• Matt Kenseth: fourth season, 31 (2003).
• Rex White: fifth season, 31 (1960).
So historically speaking, Hamlin is in the prime spot for his first Cup crown.
"This is my fifth year in Cup, but I was racing in late-models six years ago," Hamlin said. "I didn't have years and years of Nationwide experience that some of these guys had before they got to the Cup level.
"So I'm still relatively new to this, and that's why I think I've gotten better every year. There's no sense of urgency that I need to get it done this year. The best probably is still yet to come as far as my potential."
Don't get the wrong idea. Hamlin isn't waiting around thinking he'll let things come to him. He's going for it now.
"What do I have to lose?" he asked Friday. "Fall back to third in points? Third or second, no different."
Hamlin is 24 points ahead of Harvick in third, but 193 points ahead of Jeff Gordon in fourth with three races to go. Hamlin believes it's too late to play it safe.
"The risk is smaller than the reward that's out there," he said. "So I'm really not worried about making a mistake. I worried about if we're going to be fast enough to win a championship.
"We're in a position where we can win it if we really get aggressive in the sense of pit calls or things like that."
Hamlin feels good about his chances Sunday because Texas Motor Speedway is where he won when he barely could walk in April. Hamlin won at TMS two weeks after having knee surgery to repair a torn ACL.
"I felt that was a turning point in my season," Hamlin said. "It was winning against all odds pretty much, at a track where we never had won. It seems like it was such a momentum boost for our team. We went on a roll after that and don't really know why."
Hamlin won three of the next seven races after Texas, proving he could get the job done on one good leg. The knee is almost 100 percent now.
Some people questioned whether Hamlin was making the right decision to have major knee surgery in the middle of the season. Hamlin now knows it was the right thing to do.
"I have plenty of things off the track that are keeping me busy," Hamlin said. "If I hadn't had the surgery and was sitting on the coach every day not able to do the active things I like doing, I would be more stressed and probably would have made a mistake by now."
None of the top three has made a major mistake yet. Hamlin doesn't think any of them will, which is why he believes he has to go all out for a win.
"We need to win or finish in the top three," Hamlin said. "We know if we win the race, we're guaranteed to leave here with the points lead. That's our goal. So from this point on we have to race a little more aggressive."
Hamlin says he's as relaxed as he has been all season because he likes the spot he's in as the pursuer.
"I still think it's tougher being the one being chased," Hamlin said.
Johnson had a lead of more than 180 points the two previous seasons coming to Texas.
"Not only does he not have a triple-digit lead over second, but also not over third," Hamlin said. "It's really two against one from his standpoint."
Johnson considers his task a simple one this time.
"This week has been really easy for me," Johnson said Friday. "Coming into Texas in other years was more of a defensive mode. It's all offense right now.
"I think I felt more pressure trying to defend something. The small margin that we have, it's really easy to know what I need to do. I need to win the race."
But Hamlin is under no illusion that Johnson is feeling pressure.
"I think he's racing just as relaxed as we are," Hamlin said. "He has already won four championships. This is just a bonus. For us, we're trying to get our first. So we may try a little harder in different spots than he will."
Johnson sees Hamlin in a different light than Harvick.
"In racing situations, both are very respectful," Johnson said. "But I would consider Denny more patient in some situations than Kevin. I've had great races with both of them."
Whatever happens, Hamlin said he's going to enjoy the ride.
"It's fun," he said. "The race fan in me is excited to see what happens the next three weeks. It's just who performs the best now."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.
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