Commentary

Denny Hamlin's one cool customer

Updated: November 18, 2010, 6:41 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin looked like he was going to jump out of his skin for much of Thursday's Chase championship news conference, eyes squinting, jaw tight and staring straight ahead like he was being interrogated at a congressional hearing.

Halfway through the one-hour event, he actually admitted it was "one of the most awkward 30 minutes I've been through."

Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, sitting on each side of the Chase leader, did all they could to make it even more awkward.

"He definitely seems like the most nervous," Harvick said with a smile.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
Sam Greenwood/NASCAR/Getty ImagesWhy is Denny Hamlin smiling? He's got a 15-point Chase lead and he's the defending race winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Harvick added several references to the miserable fuel mileage Hamlin got last weekend at Phoenix, turning a dominating performance into a 12-place finish that kept this the tightest battle in Chase history.

Johnson at one point looked directly at Hamlin and said, "I mean, we have nothing to lose. This guy does."

The four-time defending Sprint Cup champion, who is 15 points back heading into Sunday's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, repeated it again later in case Hamlin missed it the first time.

But the title won't be decided on a stage in front of television cameras with blinding lights and reporters with pointed questions. It will be won on a 1.5-mile track in South Florida, and there is no place that Hamlin feels less awkward than behind the wheel.

If you want to know how Hamlin handles pressure, look at what he did when Joe Gibbs Racing gave him what amounted to a one-race Nationwide audition in 2004 at NASCAR's toughest track, Darlington Raceway. He finished eighth.

Look at what he did in 2005, when JGR gave him a shot to compete for a seat in the No. 11 Cup car against drivers with much bigger names and reputations. He had three top-10s and a pole in seven races, propelling him to the rookie of the year award the next season.

Look at what he did during this year's Chase at Martinsville after saying all the pressure was on Johnson, all but throwing it in the No. 48 team's face that he planned to dominate and win. He sat on the pole and won.

So Johnson and Harvick better have something more than words to throw at Hamlin if they have any hope of overtaking him. Hamlin puts himself in pressure situations on purpose because he knows he can handle them.

"I always believe I had a calling for this sport, because when I was faced with the biggest moment where I had to perform, I've done it and done it better than I ever had," Hamlin said.

Hamlin said this out of the sight of Johnson and Harvick. He said this with a smile, much more relaxed during the one-on-one portion of the day than the structure of the earlier event.

He'll relax even more when he gets to the track on Friday.

"I'm so excited to just get on the racetrack and handle the business I said I was going to do," Hamlin said. "People didn't believe me when I said, 'I'm going to step up with three to go. Trust me, I've got more. I've got more.'

"Everything I said I was going to do, I feel like I've done."

Hamlin wasn't being cocky. He just believes in himself and his team, which was picked by many before the season to end Johnson's reign.

That doesn't mean he wasn't frustrated by what happened at Phoenix. He has a cut on his right knuckle from hitting his dashboard after the race to prove it.

But Hamlin is smart enough -- and now mature enough -- to know that he controls his destiny more than Johnson or Harvick. He knows this is one of his best tracks, having won last season and finished third two other times the past four years. He knows that the speed JGR has given him the past three races will be tough for any team to beat.

"I'm in a good situation because … if I go out there and I do what we've done all year and perform really well, then it's up to them to go out there and better us," Hamlin said.

Still, it was fun watching Hamlin take body shot after body shot from Johnson and Harvick. He was like a pin cushion, being needled at every opportunity.

It began in a lighthearted way when Hamlin was reminded that Johnson and Harvick were sporting beards and his face was clean-shaven.

"I'm a Gillette young gun," said Hamlin, plugging one of his sponsors.

"Don't they kick you out when you're 30?" retorted Harvick, reminding Hamlin that Thursday was his 30th birthday.

Then it became more pointed, particularly with the digs about Hamlin's Phoenix setback.

"The fuel mileage is going to be a big factor as we come to Sunday," Harvick said. "I hope they put that same carburetor on your car."

Replied Hamlin, "It won't be."

Said Johnson, "Hopefully, it's one that's worse."

Hamlin finally loosened up a bit when asked about his comment on the awkwardness of the situation.

"Oh, just all the s--- talking that's going, when you're like 2 feet away," he said. "Other than that, I mean, it's good now. I'm OK."

Hamlin will be OK. And we know from past experience he can talk with the best of them.

He can back it up, too.

Remember, it was a year ago that Hamlin said he was going to get even with Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide race at Homestead. On Lap 35 he hooked Keselowski and spun him.

It also was a year ago that Hamlin declared himself the leading candidate to dethrone Johnson after winning at Homestead.

"The end of this Chase just made us strong," he said then, after a season-high fourth win that he has doubled this season. "Now everyone is focused and fired up about next year, knowing we're one of the few guys that can run with [Johnson] each and every week."

So maybe Hamlin was a little nervous during the news conference, but he won't be Sunday. This is a guy who hung out with LeBron James on Wednesday night, who skipped Saturday's debriefing at Phoenix to play golf with PGA star Bubba Watson, who earlier in the week went bowling with rapper Nelly.

This is a guy who earlier this year was fined by NASCAR for tweeting about mystery debris cautions.

Hamlin likes being in the spotlight. There's no reason to think he won't be under the biggest of his career when the champion is crowned late Sunday afternoon.

"Inside the car, I mean, it's really all business," Hamlin said. "The busier I am outside the race car, probably the more focused I'd be inside the race car on a race weekend. I try not to give myself too much time with myself. You know what I mean? I'll just stop there."

Laughter filled the room.

Hamlin smiled.

He knew he still had the upper hand.

"It's almost endearing," Hamlin said of the attention he was getting from Johnson and Harvick. "You know we say the things we say about each other and our teams because it's so close. You're looking for any advantage. If you can get in a guy's head, that's going to be an advantage.

"None of them will tell you they feel like they're just going to outperform us. But we are going to have to make a mistake [for them to win]. If we do what we've done all Chase and go like I said I'm going to go, we should be fine."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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