Commentary

Ol' man Hamlin new leader at JGR

Don't worry about the young guns at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano may not have tons of experience, but they've got loads of talent.

Updated: February 6, 2009, 6:13 PM ET
By Angelique Chengelis | ESPN.com

Relatively speaking, Denny Hamlin is getting up there.

In fact, he might have to start thinking about retirement. You know, the hand-eye coordination starts to go when the aging process really sets in, not to mention the crow's feet.

Hamlin has inherited the role as elder statesman among drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing now that 10-year team veteran Tony Stewart has left the den to start his own team. The 28-year-old Hamlin heads a group of three drivers at JGR with an average age of 23. Teammate Kyle Busch is 23, and newcomer Joey Logano is 18 and the youngest driver in the Sprint Cup Series.

"It is definitely a lot different looking around at a team meeting," Hamlin said. "Besides myself, I'm looking at two other guys and thinking there's a lot of faith on us as drivers. They're definitely putting a whole lot in and planning on the long run for us."

Busch, winner of eight Cup races last season, his first with Joe Gibbs Racing, said people should not be fooled by the youth-driven team. After all, backing up the three is a vast amount of behind-the-scenes experience.

That starts up front with team owner Joe Gibbs, who launched the team in 1992; team president J.D. Gibbs; Mark Cronquist, who runs the engine department; and Jimmy Makar, JGR senior vice president. On top of that, there are veteran crew chiefs Greg Zipadelli, Mike Ford and Steve Addington.

Joe Gibbs Racing

The 2009 driver lineup for Joe Gibbs Racing has a new leader, one of the hottest young veteran drivers in many years, and perhaps the most highly touted rookie in Cup history:

Kyle Busch

Car No.: 18
Crew chief: Steve Addington
2008 finish: 10th
2009 outlook: Busch had eight victories last season before a series of tough-luck races made him a non-entity in terms of the championship. An experience like last year can only serve to make Busch and his crew wiser and savvier.

Denny Hamlin

Car No.: 11
Crew chief: Mike Ford
2008 finish: Eighth
2009 outlook: He had 12 top-5 finishes and one victory last season, and Hamlin would like to believe there should have been more visits to Victory Lane. Now considered the veteran at JGR, he plans to establish himself as a championship-winner.

Joey Logano

Car No.: 20
Crew chief: Greg Zipadelli
2008 finish: 20th in Nationwide (19 starts)
2009 outlook: As Logano embarks on his Sprint Cup career, he's grateful he had an opportunity to make three Cup starts last season. He is a phenomenal talent working with a crew chief who knows how to find the best from his driver. Could he score a win this year? He thinks so.

"You might be talking about the drivers' not having much experience, but there is still great leadership," Busch said. "And there are still great people who give you advice that lead you in the right direction and can tell you when you do things wrong."

Joe Gibbs Racing is entering the post-Tony Stewart phase. The team has had plenty of time to deal with Stewart's departure after a decade-long tenure with JGR and with Zipadelli since the two-time Cup champion announced his plans last summer to become a two-car owner.

In so many ways, Stewart made Joe Gibbs Racing. In so many ways, Joe Gibbs Racing made Tony Stewart. While Zipadelli had those expected initial emotions after such a jarring change to his professional relationship with Stewart, the team moved on quickly.

Not unexpectedly, Joey Logano, the 18-year-old wonder kid whose résumé is as impressive as the accolades he has drawn from Cup veterans, was pegged to replace Stewart. Logano is an earnest young man, whose aw-shucks, eyes-wide-open demeanor veils his deeply competitive nature on the track.

Stewart, the guy who used to drive the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota, had a hair-trigger temper and undeniable talent. Logano, the new guy behind the wheel of the No. 20, has undeniable talent and is ready and willing to be molded by his, well, much older colleagues.

"It's been my dream to get here my whole life so to finally get to the top, the Sprint Cup Series, the best of the best, is an accomplishment in itself," Logano said. "I'm just excited about it. I've just got to make the best out of this opportunity.

"[Winning this season] can happen. You never know. We're going to try to win every race, [and] I think that's the right attitude to go into it. Realistically, it's really hard. This is the top, the best of the best, and winning a race here is harder than anything else, I think. I know I've got a team that can do it. I know that I don't have the experience behind me yet, but I've got a lot of Nationwide races here, and I've got a lot of Cup races coming up. I will get all of my experience there and hope the wins will come."

The wins came for Busch last season. He was the hottest driver the first half of the year, drew boos -- the ones reserved for the driver you love to hate -- at every track, and looked well on his way to a series championship. Eight wins? How do you top that? How do you not feel destined to pick up that championship trophy and that humongous check?

Busch insists he and his team didn't start living the dream before reality set in. There is such a thing in racing as bad luck, some of it created and some of it … just bad luck. Busch endured crashes and mechanical problems, and on occasion, he made errors. He finished the season with 17 top-5 finishes, but while Jimmie Johnson took control at the end of the season and won his third series championship, Busch slipped to 10th.

"When you look at it -- when we had eight wins, I didn't really see this team on too much of a high," Busch said. "They've all been down so long that you would have thought that winning as much as we did last year that they would have all been really high and on cloud nine.

"They stayed level-headed, they stayed down, they kept their head in the game, and they kept working as hard as they could. When things fell apart, they seemed to dip their heads a little bit more because it was mechanical issues. If it was driver fault, then we knew where to place blame, but you can't place blame anywhere so you just go to work and try to figure it out and fix things and get ready for 2009."

There are all those clichés that apply to Busch -- you learn from adversity, you learn what it takes to win at the end, you have to take it one race at a time. Sure, everyone knows all that, but when you go through the miraculous high that Busch experienced last season and then the dreariness of its conclusion, knowledge is, no doubt, gained.

"Anything you ever work toward is for a championship, so it doesn't matter how many race wins you have at the end of your career, [because] everybody always looks at the championships that you have been able to accumulate," Busch said. "You want to be a champion, and for me, a champion in NASCAR's top series, the Sprint Cup Series, is ultimately what we look for every weekend."

Hamlin is embracing his new role as the "leader" of the JGR drivers. He knows that he must set the tone. He knows that if Logano needs to be relieved of pressure, Hamlin's the guy to do it. He also knows that its time to express himself on the track as a championship contender -- yes, he's been in the Chase, but really, really legitimately become a guy who can't be counted out at the end. Hamlin finished eighth last season and had 12 top-five finishes, but he also had two DNFs.

While he didn't experience the type of run Busch had, Hamlin knows what he wants and knows that he's not the only one who wants to win a championship. The thing is, though, he knows the resources are there, he knows the talent is there, he knows the crew chief-driver rapport is intact, so now … he wants to prove himself.

"I'm sick of not having the results that I know we're capable of," Hamlin said. "We have four wins right now. We should have 12 wins. Bristol, two years in a row, we lost it on the last lap. That gets so frustrating. I'm not going to be around this sport 30 years. I'm only going to have so many opportunities to win these races. I want to get it done while the getting is gone. I want to get it done. I just know within myself how much fire there is to win races and become a championship driver versus one of those guys in the Chase."

After all, he's not getting any younger.

Angelique S. Chengelis contributes to ESPN.com's NASCAR coverage.

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