- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Joe Gibbs Racing will get a good glimpse of its future this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
With the Busch Series taking the weekend off, JGR will field Nextel Cup cars for both Denny Hamlin and J.J. Yeley in the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500. It will mark the first time the two drivers will race together at the Cup level.
Since Jason Leffler was let go from JGR's No. 11 team in August, a mix of drivers have competed in the Chevrolet, from veteran Terry Labonte to Yeley and Hamlin. J.D. Gibbs, the team's president -- and the man in charge with his father busy coaching the Washington Redskins -- initially said the team hoped to fill the seat with either Hamlin or Yeley.
But before the Oct. 15 race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Gibbs admitted the team might yet have to turn to a veteran to provide results desirable to the team and to sponsor FedEx. That, of course, was before Hamlin went out and posted two straight eighth-place runs -- at Charlotte, N.C., and Martinsville, Va. -- after a 32nd-place showing in his Cup debut at Kansas.
Hamlin has opened some eyes and would seem to have the edge over Yeley, who has finishes of 39th, 34th, 25th and 29th in his four starts.
Of course, if rumors surrounding Bobby Labonte and his potential interest in moving elsewhere turn into reality -- still a bit of a long shot as he has three years left on his JGR contract -- it's possible both Hamlin, 24, and Yeley, 29, could make the jump to Cup next year.
For now, though, Hamlin's simply focusing on Atlanta after his surprising run at Charlotte. Having grown up on short tracks in his native Virginia, he's still adapting to the 1.5-mile facilities that dominate the sport these days.
"Atlanta's going to be, probably, my biggest challenge," Hamlin says. "It seems like the big tracks are really throwing curveballs at me. But we did run good at Charlotte and the tracks are very similar, so hopefully we can carry it on to Atlanta."
A crash in qualifying at Kansas provided Hamlin with a rude introduction to Cup racing, but he has settled in nicely of late.
"I definitely do [feel more comfortable]," Hamlin says. "It just really feels good to me being in the Cup Series and just the way everybody races and everything. It's just good racing with these guys, and I'm definitely happy to be here."
He was certainly happy at Martinsville, where he overcame a green-flag pit stop early in the race and worked his way back onto the lead lap. After being among the fastest drivers during the two days leading up to the race, Hamlin said being able to back it up over 500 laps was a big step in the right direction. Perhaps that was the case because he headed into the race with the proper frame of mind.
"I really don't feel any pressure," Hamlin said before the race. "We had a good solid qualifying run [at Martinsville] and our great race run [at Charlotte]. I feel like no matter what happens the next two races, I feel like I've done the best I could."
With just one Busch Series start to his credit entering the season, Hamlin is an impressive fifth in points. Considering he's still adjusting to the high-speed tracks, he has acquitted himself well.
Still, he wants to win one of the final four races to cap off his season in style.
"We've got to get our [Busch] program there a little bit better than what it is right now," Hamlin says. "Other than that, that's really the only thing really holding us back from winning. We're right there, close, but just can't seem to pull one off."
Yeley, meanwhile, has four top-five finishes in the Busch Series, compared with just one for Hamlin, and sits 11th in points.
Jimmy Makar, who won the 2000 Cup championship as Labonte's crew chief and is now a vice president at JGR, will help decide who takes over the No. 11 car. He's hopeful one of the two young drivers will earn the ride, and Hamlin might be doing just that at this point.
"When you look on the outside what's out there and what's available out there, the caliber of people out there aren't what we're looking for, for the 11 car," Makar says. "The people that we'd like to get in the car are tied up in contracts and such, so it's really not much choice. We came in-house and looked in-house; we had Denny and J.J. sitting over on the Busch side doing a really, really good job for us.
"We thought we might as well give them an opportunity to see what they could do here. It was an opportunity for them to kind of measure themselves up and for us to measure them up to what they could do. We all think that, especially Denny, hasn't got a lot of experience, even on the Busch side.
"We were kind of just going to give him a shot at this and give him a taste of what's going on but he's done a very good job for us. That's the big thing right now, is to kind of evaluate and see where he's at and give him the opportunity to see where he's at in relation to everybody else on the Cup side."
If Hamlin or Yeley, or both, makes the move to Cup, he'll join an impressive cast that already includes Martin Truex Jr., Reed Sorenson, Clint Bowyer and David Stremme as drivers set to battle for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award, making it one of the deepest freshman classes in years.
Makar knows there's a risk that accompanies a rookie driver, but it's a risk JGR seems willing to take.
"You send these guys to tracks that they haven't seen before with the type of cars that they haven't driven before, either aerodynamically or horsepower, things they're not used to, so you always take a chance," Makar says. "You can do a few things to help that out. You can go test with them and give them an opportunity to learn without pressure of competition that we have on the weekend.
"But everything that we do is a risk. You've got to weigh your risks versus your gains and your goals and then decide what to do from there."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.