On Sunday in Loudon, Denny Hamlin may have unknowingly gotten his big break.
Double-file restarts late in the first Chase race at New Hampshire required him to drive very aggressively -- an uncharacteristic trait -- to hold onto a second-place finish. It is a hard-nosed style that he needs to use more often if he wants to win the Sprint Cup.
This is Hamlin's fourth season in Cup and he's made the Chase in each of them. He was a solid third in 2006, 68 points behind champion Jimmie Johnson, in a remarkable rookie year. But he fell off badly to 12th in 2007 and, after a slow start, rallied to eighth with three top-fives in the last five races last season. There were multiple reasons for the fall-off -- bad luck and poor performances by Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team to name a few.
A smart and smooth driver, Hamlin always drives hard and prefers to stay clean, regularly running and finishing in the top five and top 10. Once the Gibbs team spotted him in late 2003 by pure good fortune -- Hamlin was setting up his late-model cars that the team had purchased for Aric Almirola and kept breaking the track record -- he ascended to Cup in less than two years. Hamlin won 25 late-model races in 2003 and it's hard to imagine he had to rough anybody up to accomplish it.
Hamlin was on the inside of the front row for those restarts in Loudon, three in the final 18 laps. Mark Martin was on the outside, the preferred position, and opened up a gap that created racing room for third-starting Juan Pablo Montoya, also on the outside, and fourth-starting Jimmie Johnson, who had his choice to move inside or outside.
"I got killed every single restart on the bottom lane and I'd get stuck three-wide in the first corner and then I'd have to battle my way back," Hamlin said. "We had a really fast car at the end. We got stuck three-wide every time and I'd just have to overdrive getting in [to Turn 1]. Got into [Johnson] a couple of times and I've got to say sorry to him. I got a little aggressive there."
Hamlin may have wanted to apologize to Johnson, but he didn't do anything out of bounds. Hamlin's Toyota didn't knock Johnson's Chevrolet into the wall or damage it, or cost Johnson any positions. He still finished fourth. It was no harm, no foul. And driving harder than normal got Hamlin second, equaling his career-best finish in 31 Chase starts. Hamlin also was second at Martinsville in 2006.
Hamlin did what it took to extract the best finish he could get. He should learn from that.
"To come out second when I should have been about fifth with those restarts, I was pretty proud of that," he said.
Hamlin arrived to the Chase with momentum. His win in the 26th and final regular season race at Richmond, his home track, was monumental for him and the team. "It's by far the biggest win of my career," Hamlin said at Richmond. "Had we not won this race, I probably wouldn't have been as confident going into the Chase. Even a second-place finish doesn't give you what we got by winning this race."
Hamlin is Toyota's top hope to win the championship. Brian Vickers is the other Toyota driver in the Chase and the Red Bull team has at least a year to go before challenging Johnson, Tony Stewart and Mark Martin. Hamlin could.
"We haven't had championship-caliber finishes except for our rookie year, but I feel now our performance on the racetrack is better than it has been in my career," he said. "We are bringing good cars to the track and being competitive and competing for race wins every week. That's something we didn't have in our rookie year, when we were racing for the championship."
Hamlin offered this self-evaluation after his win at Richmond: "We have been very, very consistent and that's why we have always been in good championship standings. It's just our style. We are not flashy. We are not winning five, six races a year. We are competing for race wins that many times, but it seems like we don't get it done for whatever reason.
"And maybe it's because I'm not aggressive enough at the end of a race. There've only been two races this year that I've said I'm going to win and we have won them. So, confidence goes a long way and, besides that, it's just aggressiveness that pays off at times and it did again [at Richmond]."
Hamlin has what it takes to become a Sprint Cup champion. He can do it without driving recklessly or being unfair, but he can't be unwilling to take or hold positions that alter the paint job. Sprint Cup is a contact sport.