Commentary

Hamlin hoping to keep streak alive for Joe Gibbs Racing

Can Joe Gibbs Racing make it five Nationwide wins in a row Friday night at Richmond? It's up to Denny Hamlin, writes Mark Ashenfelter.

Updated: May 2, 2008, 4:32 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- Joe Gibbs Racing will look to make it five Nationwide Series wins in a row Friday night at Richmond International Raceway. And that's not even the most impressive part of the story.

It'll be up to Denny Hamlin to get it done for JGR during the Lipton Tea 250, as JGR is running only the No. 20 entry in this race. If local favorite Hamlin reaches Victory Lane, he'll be the third different JGR driver to have won in the car during the streak.

Kyle Busch won at Texas, Phoenix and Mexico City before Tony Stewart won on Saturday at Talladega. This time, with Busch driving Braun Racing's No. 32 Toyota and Stewart not entered, Hamlin is leading the charge for JGR.

Hamlin simply wants to win at his home track, so the fact it would be a team milestone as well is just a bonus. Growing up in nearby Chesterfield, Va., Hamlin will have plenty of family and friends supporting him this weekend.

Just as winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway meant the world to Stewart, a win at RIR would bring a huge smile to Hamlin's face. Winning the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville earlier this year was nice, but it wasn't Hamlin's true home track.

"I know it's not just another race for me. When I go to Richmond, there's definitely a lot more pressure," Hamlin said. "I'm constantly looking in the stands at the people cheering me on, and that means a lot to me. I take a lot of pride in trying to run well there because I spent so many years watching from there. When I do have a good run at Richmond, it means just a little bit more there than it does anywhere else."

The game of musical drivers may keep the No. 20 team's crew busy, but with Hamlin, the team is working with the driver who has driven the car the most over the past few years, and a test session at the track gave Hamlin time to work with crew chief Dave Rogers.

"We worked on finding the balance and speed you need to be successful there," Hamlin said of the test. "It seems like the car takes a while to get going and the tires take a long time to get heated up.

"It's definitely going to be a track-position type of race because the times on a set of tires aren't falling off. We aren't seeing a lot of wear on the tires, and you aren't going to have as many opportunities to come onto pit road and fix your car. Qualifying will be very important for Friday night's race, and I really think the race will be won from a top-10 starting spot."

Current points leader Clint Bowyer won this race a year ago and will be looking to bounce back after a tough race at Talladega. Carl Edwards sits second in points and won a Nationwide race here in 2005, while Busch, who sits third in points, has two Nationwide wins here.

Kevin Harvick has four wins in the series as well -- each one coming when he was driving for Richard Childress Racing in the series. He's been competitive in his Kevin Harvick Inc. entry but has yet to win with his own team.

With nine top-5s in 14 starts, Harvick understably has high expectations.

"Richmond is one of those places where I really enjoy racing. You can move the car all over the racetrack," Harvick said. "It seems like the groove moves around as the race goes on. I also enjoy racing at night, and I think everybody enjoys the cooler temperatures and the night atmosphere.

"Richmond is one of those places I am really comfortable racing. We've come close this season to our first win at KHI, and Richmond is one of the tracks I know I can win."

Even drivers who haven't had overwhelming success at Richmond love racing there. Jason Leffler says that, like Bristol, Richmond will keep a driver on his toes all evening, pointing out that Richmond feels like a short track with characteristics found on bigger speedways as well.

"It is different than Bristol, though, in that aerodynamics play a larger role. You need to keep the fenders on the car in order to get a good finish because the cars are a little bit more aero-sensitive, even at a short track like Richmond," Leffler said. "There are always two grooves of racing so there's a lot of side-by-side beating and banging, which is fun as a driver and exciting for the fans."

-- Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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