- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Denny Hamlin, sign in please. You're the next driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide Series Toyota.
If Hamlin's got a big smile on his face Friday when he climbs into the Camry at the .533-mile high-banked oval, it'll be easy to understand why. JGR's No. 20 entry has simply dominated the series thus far with Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch behind the wheel.
Stewart won the year's first two races in the car and was a force at Las Vegas until getting in a wreck after contact with David Reutimann. Busch was seemingly on his way to a win last Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway until a broken shock on the right front shredded the tire and sent him into the wall.
Finally, Hamlin gets a turn on Saturday in the Sharpie Mini 300 (ABC, 2 p.m. ET), and he can't wait to resume working with crew chief Dave Rogers. In 22 starts last year, Hamlin posted three wins, 11 top-5s and 16 top-10s in just 22 starts.
The Past three years Hamlin and Rogers have combined for five wins, 24 top-5s, 50 top-10s and 11 poles. Hamlin's made just one Nationwide Series start this year, and that was in a Braun Racing Toyota at Daytona.
Now, though, he'll be driving for the team that has led 396 laps out of 670 through four races.
"It's great to be able to work with Dave again, since we feel like we built the No. 20 car program together over the last three years," Hamlin said. "Our chemistry was really good last year, and I'm sure we'll pick up where we left off this weekend. Hopefully, we can make up for the bad luck these guys have had the last couple of weeks."
Hamlin said it's been tough watching Stewart and Busch drive what is considered his car, but he's quick to credit Rogers for improving the team while also overseeing the switch from Chevrolet to Toyota.
Busch's interest in running a majority of the Nationwide races has limited the opportunities for Hamlin, with a contributing factor being a lack of sponsorship for the team's No. 18 entry. That car isn't running the full schedule, so Busch is seeing extra time in the No. 20 entry.
"We had to realign some things in our Nationwide Series program since Kyle wanted to run quite a few races. We brought him in and you only have so many cars and sponsors," Hamlin said. "It's been hard to watch from the sidelines over the past three weeks since it's so much fun to drive such a strong race car, but I think the most important thing for me was that I was able to give up a few races so I could select some racetracks that I really like to run.
"I always enjoy Bristol because of my short-track roots, and I'm looking forward to running at Phoenix and getting a chance to run both races at home in Richmond."
Rogers is understandably excited about working with Hamlin once again. He credits Hamlin with building the team in 2005 and '06, when Hamlin drove all 35 races.
"A couple of years ago he asked me to come over here and help him build something. I think you're seeing the fruits of that now," Rogers said. "We worked so hard on making our cars turn and making our chassis better at Denny's dictation. And now we stepped it up a little bit more, and I think Kyle and Tony have benefited from it. Hopefully, we'll get Denny in there at Bristol and we can continue to run strong and have some more success with him this year."
Carl Edwards won this race a year ago, and points leader Kevin Harvick has won here four times -- tied with Morgan Shepherd for the all-time lead in the series. Kasey Kahne won here in August, the first race with the new variable banking, so there could be plenty of Sprint Cup drivers battling for the win.
Among those will be Martin Truex Jr., driving for former teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in JR Motorsports' No. 5 Chevrolet. Truex is among the past Bristol winners, so he could be a factor Saturday afternoon.
"I'm really excited about driving Junior's Nationwide car at Bristol. We were talking on the Internet at the beginning of the year, and he said he was looking for someone to drive his car in a couple of Nationwide races," Truex said. "I told him I'd do it, and he said, 'Are you kidding?'
"I told him I was being serious, but we didn't talk about it again for a while, and I had kind of forgotten about it. He brought it up again a couple of weeks ago and asked me if I was still interested, and I told him I was. It just kind of went from there. I've got to thank Teresa Earnhardt, Max Siegel and everyone at Dale Earnhardt Inc. for working with me on this. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Denny Hamlin's been letting Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch have all the fun in the Nationwide Series lately. Hamlin will take his turn in "his" car -- the No. 20 -- at Bristol on Saturday, writes Mark Ashenfelter.