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Hometown Hamlin hopes to turn season around with Richmond win

The tweet went out on April 18, an S.O.S. delivered from the iPad of NASCAR's biggest disappointment of 2011, the day after Denny Hamlin finished 23rd at Talladega Superspeedway. "I am now accepting all good luck charms," Hamlin tweeted. "Tough ending yesterday but we will be back. SOON."

You have to admire Hamlin's confidence, because so far this has been a lost season for the driver who came in second in the final standings last year. Through eight races, Hamlin has only one top-10 finish -- a seventh place run at Las Vegas in early March -- and is currently 17th in the standings. What's been his problem? You name it: engine woes, pit road gaffes, fuel mileage shortcomings and just plain bad racing luck.

Yet Hamlin has been in this position before -- just last year, in fact. After seven races in 2010, Hamlin was 18th in the standings. But then, once the rear-wings on the Cup cars were replaced with the spoiler, he turned it on, winning three of the next six races and, in the process, moving 12 places in the points to sixth.

Hamlin firmly believes he can make a similar move this season, starting on Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Speedway, a .75-mile oval that he considers his home track (he's from nearby Chesterfield, Va.) and where he has won two of the last three Cup starts. Hamlin admits that he doesn't have the raw speed in his No. 11 Toyota that he had last year -- right now the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing appear to be a tick slower than the Fords of Roush Fenway Racing and the Chevys of Hendrick Motorsports -- but Hamlin is as good as anyone in the Cup series at closing out races at Richmond, a track where handling is a paramount, which means the car with the most power under the hood doesn't necessarily win.

Hamlin is my pick to take the checkers under the lights on Saturday night. His primary competition likely will come from one of his teammates, one of four other drivers I'll be closely watching when the green flag drops on Cup race No. 9 of 2011.

1. Kyle Busch

Over the last 10 races at Richmond, no driver has scored more points at the short track than Kyle Busch. Currently sixth in the standings, Busch has either finished first or second in six of his 12 career starts at Richmond -- one of the most impressive driver statistics you'll ever see in the Cup series. His career average finish of 5.2 makes this Busch's best track on the circuit. Given the way Busch has dominated the other short tracks of Bristol (five wins in 13 career starts) and Martinsville (six top-5 finishes in 13 career starts), it's clear that he must now be considered the top short track racer in NASCAR today.

What makes him so good at these venues? Two things: His ability to handle a loose race car, which means he can control the car when the back wheels slide up the track as if on ice through the turns (loose equals fast, especially on short tracks); and his skill at executing bump-and-run maneuvers, which is when a driver will nudge the rear end of the car in front of him, causing him to momentarily lose control, and then make the pass. No one in the sport is better at either of these short track necessities than Busch.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. should have an excellent shot at ending his 101-race winless streak at Richmond, where he has three career wins. As I wrote in the magazine last week, Earnhardt has been as consistent as any driver in NASCAR this season other than points leader Carl Edwards. Earnhardt has finished 12th or better in every race except the season opener at Daytona and is currently third in the standings, which is as high as he's been at this point in the season since 2009.

The difference with Earnhardt in 2011 has been his new crew chief Steve Letarte, who, at the quarterpole of the season, would get my vote for crew chief of the year. And remember: When Letarte was with Jeff Gordon last season, Gordon finished second in this race, so Letarte knows precisely what setups work at Richmond.

3. Kevin Harvick

So far in 2011 Kevin Harvick is the only driver with two wins. He took the checkers at Fontana in the fifth race of the season and then, a week later, on April 3, he passed Earnhardt Jr. late at Martinsville to reach Victory Lane. What made the Martinsville win so improbable was that three drivers -- Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin -- had won the previous 15 short track races on the Cup circuit.

Harvick should be a contender on Saturday night. He's finished in the top 10 at Richmond in 11 of his last 12 starts.

4. Tony Stewart

I spent a lot of time chatting with Tony Stewart outside of his motor coach at Talladega on April 15, and one thing was abundantly clear: He genuinely feels like he's a title contender, which is something he wasn't in 2010. With a little luck, Stewart could be sitting on three wins right now, but, as it stands, he's yet to reach Victory Lane and is 12th in the standings.

"But we have the speed and the team to be a real factor this season," Stewart said. "There's always a few things you can improve on and we're not getting the finishes we should, but we are close. Really, really close."

Richmond is Stewart's favorite track on the Cup circuit. He's won there three times and finished second in four other races at Richmond. Expect at least a top-5 run for Stewart.

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