Rookie Hamlin taking Nextel Cup pressure in stride
Pressure is watching your parents remortgage their home and sell their prized possessions, just praying that your childhood dreams were more than a passing infatuation.
Pressure is running out of money to keep racing and depending on an outsider for help. Pressure is knowing that if you didn't perform right away, the outside help would leave, too, and you'd be penniless and would have to give up your dream.
Fighting for fear of never again getting to do what you love, that's pressure.
Sitting smack-dab in the middle of what is shaping up to be the most congested competition for a berth into NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup hardly puts the fear in Denny Hamlin like the prospect of losing his livelihood.
That's how the only rookie among the top 10 in points is able to keep his cool. Just 61 points separate eighth place from 12th, and nine races from now, after a jaunt around his home track in Richmond, Va., the top 10 will vie for a title. The rest will plan for next season.
But Hamlin isn't quivering. He's flourishing. The Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy has dealt with much greater adversity and he's responded with much greater accomplishments.
How impressive would making the Chase be?
"It's getting hard to be impressed with this guy," Gibbs Racing President J.D. Gibbs said. "He keeps doing so many things."
In NASCAR's third season under its version of a playoff format, Hamlin said he believes he can become the first rookie to advance.
"It's all going to be based on eliminating your mistakes and bad problems," he said. "I think for the first six or eight races, every other finish was outside the top 30, so we had ourselves a hole. But we were a top-10 car contending every single week. We just had bad luck, blown motors, tires, just things gone wrong and it seemed like these five or six weeks that we've been running top 10 just about every week. We've just eliminated our problems and we're just showing the potential of the race team."
Hamlin has long since shown his potential as a race car driver. Fittingly, the Chesterfield, Va., native won the first go-kart race he ever entered at age 7.
From there, he won 50 times in a nine-year span, ending his kart career with 127 victories and five championships. That paved the way for a late-model racing career that saw him win a couple dozen races and a handful of track championships. In 2002, he won 10 times in NASCAR's weekly series. In 2003, when his parents had done all they could and still couldn't find the money to finance their son's dream, Hamlin took advantage of race team owner Jim Dean's kindness and willingness to bet on an up-and-comer and won 25 out of 36 races entered.
"That kind of caught the attention of Gibbs racing," Hamlin said.
Some of the Gibbs gang watched Hamlin during a testing session and were blown away by the speeds he was running. At the time, Gibbs Racing didn't have a driver development program, such as Ganassi Racing and Roush Racing have featured for years. Still, the team knew it had a star in the making and signed him.
"We didn't have anywhere to put him," Gibbs said, "but we just wanted to get him on board."
In 2004, they put him in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series ride, where he showed off one of his old tricks: performing on cue.
His instant success continued as he finished 10th in his first try. In the Busch Series, he finished fifth in his first full season -- while simultaneously trying his hand at the Nextel Cup Series over the final seven races of its season. He compiled three top 10s for a No. 11 team that had struggled before his -- and crew chief Mike Ford's -- arrival.
"We just made the best of every opportunity," Hamlin said. "And then when I got the opportunity to run this FedEx car at the end of last year, me and Mike clicked instantly and I knew this was something that I could do.
"We knew last year that we had the potential to be a Chase car. We just had to work on our consistency. We can run top 10 every week if nothing goes wrong. It's just that we had a lot of issues and problems with motors and tires and stuff like that. We kind of had a glimpse of it last year, but our goals were top 15 in points and try to win Raybestos Rookie of the Year. That was the biggest thing that we tried to accomplish this year. Of course, now that we're in the top 10, we definitely need to realign our goals and try to stay where we're at. And the only way to do it is to keep running top 10 every single week."
That's a tall order, even for a kid who has been an instant success in virtually every new racing series he's entered.
But Hamlin remembers a time when he could barely afford to race. He remembers a time when he thought he'd have to take a 9-to-5 job and live vicariously through NASCAR telecasts each weekend.
Sure, he's in 10th place by only a narrow six-point margin. And yes, four-time champion Jeff Gordon lurks 14 points back. But Hamlin's got a contract now, and people pay him to drive race cars.
Pressure's off. Now, it's all about the Chase.
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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