He was just a boy, only 11 years old, but already Denny Hamlin had an edge to him.
It was a summer afternoon in 1992, and Hamlin -- along with his parents, Dennis and Mary Lou -- traveled from their home in Chesterfield, Va., to Richmond (Va.) International Speedway. Before the race, young Hamlin stood in line to get the autograph of Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach who was in his first season of owning a Sprint Cup team. Hamlin reached Gibbs, and after shaking his hand and taking a photo, Hamlin boldly told the man next to him, I'm going to race for you someday.
Today that picture is still as precious to Hamlin as any family heirloom, and it's just one of the many highlights he's experienced at RIR. Since he started driving for Joe Gibbs Racing full time in 2006, Hamlin has two wins and an average finish of 7.3 at the .75-mile short track. Hamlin considers Richmond his home track, and it says here on Saturday night he'll have another memorable experience at RIR by taking the checkered flag in the final race of NASCAR's 2012 regular season.
Hamlin, put simply, is on a roll -- peaking at the perfect time. He's won the last two weeks, at Bristol and Atlanta, bringing him to a Series-leading four wins this season. This means he'll enter the Chase at least tied for the points lead based on the three bonus points that carry into the playoffs for each victory (Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart currently each have three wins in 2012).
"We're just winning at the tracks we should be winning at," Hamlin said in Atlanta. "I'm going to try to win 14 or 13 straight or whatever it is."
He won't do that, but look for his impressive win streak to continue at the track where it really all began for Denny Hamlin. He's my pick to take the checkers at Richmond.
Here are four other drivers to watch at Richmond:
1. Kasey Kahne
Kahne currently holds the first of the two Wildcard positions that advance to the Chase. There are a few scenarios in which Kahne doesn't make it in, but if he finishes 13th or better -- no matter what anyone else does -- he'll be in the Chase.
So can he do that? The numbers say yes. Not only has he finished 13th or better in eight of the last nine races, but he also has flourished in recent events at Richmond, registering two top-fives in his last three starts. As long as he can avoid trouble on the track and not have a mechanical failure, Kahne will advance. And if he does, I think he'll be a legitimate title contender. Why? Because as the season has progressed, he's become more consistent and flashed increased speed.
2. Kyle Busch
Busch's season is on the line at Richmond. He currently holds the final Wildcard spot that advances to the Chase, but his lead over Jeff Gordon is only 12 points -- which is tantamount to 12 positions on the track -- and several drivers could pass him if they take the checkered flag at Atlanta (Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano).
No question, Busch has been a disappointment this season. He has only one victory and his average finish of 14.9 would be his worst in three years if he maintains his current pace. The good news for Busch: Richmond, statistically, is his best track on the Cup schedule. He has four wins here in 15 starts, 12 top-five runs, and an average finish of 4.7. So if he simply is average by his standards on Saturday night, he'll sneak into the Chase as the last Wildcard.
3. Jeff Gordon
Could this be Gordon's last chance to make a Chase?
At age 41, time is certainly running out for the four-time Cup champion. The easiest way for him to clinch a spot in the playoffs will be to win on Saturday night, but it won't be easy. In 39 career starts at Richmond, Gordon has only two wins -- and his last victory was in 2000. What's more, in April he came in 23rd at RIR.
Gordon had a wonderful opportunity to win last Sunday at Atlanta, but he chose not to slam into the rear bumper of Hamlin on the final lap to nudge him up the track and make the pass. Gordon, who wound up second, immediately voiced regret for not doing so on pit road -- a regret he'll be feeling deep into the offseason.
4. Ryan Newman
Of all the drivers who could leapfrog Busch and Gordon and vault into the Chase with a win, I like Newman's chances. Currently 17th in the standings, Newman's only victory this season came on another short track (Martinsville) and he's always excelled at this type of beating-and-banging style of racing.
In 21 career starts at RIR, Newman has only one victory but an impressive average finish of 11.8. This week he signed a one-year contract extension to stay at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013. Could he possibly reward his boss with a win on Saturday night? It's unlikely, but keep an eye Newman's No. 39 Chevy late.