Commentary

Hamlin rewards fans at Martinsville

Updated: November 6, 2009, 12:04 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Many NASCAR fans say they feel forgotten these days, like the steadfast corporate infiltration of the good ol' boy network shoved them aside like a rural route snow drift in favor of bigger markets and a (perceived) more glamorous lifestyle.

To them, NASCAR chose big money over the little man.

That's a bit dramatic to me. But the simple truth is it ain't like it used to be. As a boy, my daddy was at Darlington when Junior Johnson, after a race, backed his ride into the infield and unloaded a tub full of Tyson Holly Farms chicken and another tub full of beer, and the boys partied the night away.

That type of driver accessibility built NASCAR, and many fans feel like it should still be that way. That's a bit na´ve. It's not that way. These days drivers park, undress and sprint to the plane. I don't blame them. I'd want to get home, too. Drivers didn't have planes in 1965.

To that end, many fans these days think drivers are inaccessible, other than snaking autograph lines formed in front of gleaming 18-wheelers on random Saturday afternoons. Fans also wonder whether drivers even care about their support.

I'm here to tell you they do. And today I come bearing proof.

Denny Hamlin won the Tums 500 last weekend in Martinsville, Va., an especially gratifying victory for him given it was in his home state, he avenged a near-miss loss to Jimmie Johnson in the spring and he'd had two consecutive horrible weeks leading into it.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
AP Photo/Steve HelberDenny Hamlin spent a lot of time partying in Victory Lane on Sunday and even brought some fans along for the ride.

Hours after he claimed the checkered flag -- following the burnouts, the television interviews, the incessant team photos and the media center -- Hamlin walked back out to Victory Lane to continue the endless Hat Dance photo shoot.

It was pitch black outside. But he noticed a group of fans -- he estimates some 40 or 50 -- still sitting in the frontstretch grandstands waiting to watch his celebration to its absolute conclusion. They were hollering and screaming and congratulating Hamlin. He waved and laughed with them.

See, at Martinsville, Victory Lane is only 50 feet from the frontstretch fence. A handful of those folks in the grandstands wore head-to-toe Denny Hamlin garb. And they didn't know it, but they were soon to fall face-first into a race fan's dream.

"There's not a whole lot of true-blue Denny Hamlin fans that are all decked out in all my gear and everything," Hamlin said. "And basically, I saw, I think four people or so with all my gear on.

"And I told Austin [Peyton, Hamlin's manager] to go get those people because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them to be part of Victory Lane. And it's a way for me to say thanks for being one of my fans."

Seriously, folks. Hamlin pulled fans out of the stands to take Victory Lane photos with him, the trophy and the grandfather clock.

"I know every fan [of mine] has to hear a bunch of crap from Jimmie Johnson fans and Jeff Gordon fans," Hamlin said. "They support me through thick and thin, when they could probably support someone who's had more success, like Jimmie Johnson. It was just a 'thanks' to them."

They didn't know what to do with themselves.

"They were freaking out," Hamlin said, laughing.

There was a younger couple, mid-20s maybe, full-body-stitched in FedEx gear, faces painted with 11s, the whole nine. The guy, an aspiring racer, wore Hamlin plumb out with questions of how he could become what Hamlin has become.

"He just wanted to talk to me," Hamlin said. "He probably thought, never in a million years he'd have an opportunity to spend two minutes with me, but to share Victory Lane that day with me, they were just in complete shock."

That opportunity was special for Hamlin, too. He's proud of his fan base, and appreciates that they stick with him even when he makes boneheaded mistakes and wrecks himself or blows engines. Above all else, he appreciates that they back him when he doesn't especially stand out from the crowd. He's not controversial and doesn't win every other week like some other drivers.

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"I wonder why they picked me," he said. "I just don't stand out. Our performance is as good as anyone's, but it's just weird, and I don't understand that side of it. Maybe they see something in me or my driving style that they like, and the people that show their colors for me, I always look out for them.

"There's not a time when I see someone with my gear on that I don't stop and sign something. A lot of that is that I don't have as many [fans] as drivers that are more popular. Jeff Gordon can't stop and sign for everyone that has Jeff Gordon gear on. That's impossible. But I try to at least reach out to everyone that takes their time and money to support me."

Hamlin hasn't forgotten what it's like to be those fans. In 1992, as an 11-year-old, he stood in line for three hours to meet his favorite driver, Bill Elliott.

"It was just for a brief second. But I remember that feeling," he said. "It was 15 seconds that I was in front of him that we made eye contact, and I told him I was his biggest fan and he was my favorite driver. For him to acknowledge me then, for 15 seconds, it was more than worth the three hours of waiting in line.

"It's hard for me nowadays to think 'Man, these fans are getting pushed through autograph lines,' and all that. They've really got to be devoted. But then I realize back then what it meant to me to meet my favorite driver. So that's why I try to take that little extra time to make it worth my fans' while to be a Denny Hamlin fan."

In a world where many fans feel forgotten, that's refreshing. And his gesture was spontaneous, unchoreographed, genuine.

"It is gratifying to me to do that. I heard a great quote the other day -- 'What's all the fame and money for if you can't share it with anyone?' To me, that was just part of me wanting to share it with someone else."

The Six …

Hey Marty,

Ask Kyle how these words taste -- "It's never Junior, it's always the crew chief."

What goes around comes around.

-- Vonnie Gamble, Florida

Junior Nation COULD NOT WAIT to remind Kyle Busch of that statement, which he uttered on a Friday afternoon in May in Dover, Del., earlier this year.

I figure I got 100 e-mails just like this one.

More Kyle …

Hi Marty,

Kyle Bush commented [recently] that he was "his own worst critic" … just want to say he has never met my wife …

-- Reg Cressey, hometown unknown

Funny.

Marty,

I think Rick Hendrick should move Chad Knaus to Junior's pit box. It would solve two problems: 1) Junior gets the dictator crew chief that he says he needs; 2) Jimmie Johnson gets the chance to prove how great of a driver he is without Knaus. They will have already set the record with four straight cups, so what's the point in keeping them together?

-- Ben, Near Tulsa, Okla.

Five straight. Six straight. Eight championships? It's not out of the realm of possibility that this is the best team ever, Ben. And who said Johnson wanted to prove how great he is without Knaus?

Johnson's not an idiot. He knows full well Knaus is a substantial contributor to his success. They weathered the storm in 2005 (the infamous cookies-and-milk story) and it'll take a complete meltdown to break them up. Stranger things have happened, mind you, but unions like theirs only happen once a generation. They realize that and Rick Hendrick realizes that.

Breaking them up to "fix Junior" would be ridiculous, silly, short-sighted and uncalled for. Who says Knaus and Junior would mesh? Knaus demands a lot from his driver, and the driver has to be willing to push back. Why tear apart a stellar pairing that happens to be steamrolling toward history for the possibility of benefiting another driver?

That's not the answer to righting Junior's ship, Ben.

Marty,

What's the point of calling it "Door To Door," since there are no doors on the car? Why not call it Fender To Fender?

-- Tom Meyer, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hmmm. That's a fair point, Tom. Maybe I'll call it Splitter To Splitter next year.

Marty,

Do you have your Halloween costume ready for Talladega Boulevard this weekend?!

-- Springer, Norwalk, Conn.

No. But I did receive my limited-edition "ESTRADA" shades this week. The letters aren't see-through, so wearing them is like peering through a picket fence all day. But they're snazzy, well worth the price of obstructed vision. I brought my Natty Light wristbands, too. Settle down.

Marty,

I read where Steve Addington is out as Kyle Busch's crew chief and Dave Rogers is in. My question is why didn't JGR at least look at Richie Wauters? I haven't looked it up, but I'm sure that Wauters/Busch has a much higher winning percentage in the Truck Series than Johnson/Knaus have. To me those numbers are too good to just ignore. Where is my thinking going wrong?

-- Nick in Meridian, Miss.

All due respect to Richie Wauters (great crew chief, very smart), and to the Truck Series competition (the best show NASCAR has to offer). But Nick, there is no comparison between what Johnson and Knaus have done in Cup to what Busch and Wauters have done in Trucks.

It's like comparing "Wicked" to the critically acclaimed high school drama club production. Both are very good, just on very different levels.

MARTY!

It has happened twice in the Chase now: Car spins on last lap at start/finish, can't get re-fired, and they don't throw the yellow. First time was at Loudon, and now Martinsville. They throw a debris caution for what looked like a hunk of rubber on the track, but they won't throw a yellow for a 3,500 pound piece of debris sitting on the start/finish line as they all come out of Turn 4 screaming to the finish. What gives?!?!

-- Mike McKenney, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Believe me, I hear you on this one, Mike. But the fact is NASCAR can't win in that situation. If they throw the yellow fans are ticked. If they don't, fans question whether they care enough for driver safety.

John Andretti, the driver whose No. 34 car was sideways at the start/finish line at Martinsville as the field came screaming to the checkers, defended NASCAR's decision not to throw the yellow. If he's cool with it, I presume we should be, too.

Marty,

Junior Nation has begun to think that our man has been turned into an R&D driver for the rest of the Hendrick drivers. Give us some of your insight. Have they asked him to take an R&D role to help Jimmie, Jeff and Mark?

-- Lauren Stamper, Charlottesville, Va.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is an R&D driver like I'm an astronaut.

That's my time. Thank you for yours. Hallow-Dega. Rowdy.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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