Now is the time for Denny Hamlin to quiet critics with NASCAR title

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"Until you win a championship,'' said Hamlin, "people will associate you with being the best that never can or will win a championship.''

Now he has a chance to shed that disparaging label before his name becomes further intertwined with such disappointment.

Don't think so? Consider that only seven drivers in NASCAR history have won more Cup races than Hamlin and not won a championship.

Among those on that list is Kyle Busch, Hamlin's teammate, who has 24 career wins. Busch won't contend for the title this year after the final season race at Richmond, where his collapse coupled with Jeff Gordon's determined run knocked him out of the Chase.

While Busch is left to race for 13th, Hamlin enters the 12-man Chase as the No. 1 seed -- just as he did in 2010. In that Chase he led the points race early, lost the top spot to Jimmie Johnson, but reclaimed it with a win at Texas with two weeks left in the season.

Hamlin's title hopes soured in the second to final week of 2010 when poor fuel mileage cost him several points in the season's penultimate race, allowing Johnson to close the gap. Hamlin proceeded to struggle at Homestead that year; he was slow in qualifying and spun in the race after being hit by another car. Ultimately Hamlin became the first driver in the Chase era to lose the points lead in the season's final race, while Johnson celebrated a record fifth consecutive crown.

"I don't care that people thought we lost the championship in the last race,'' said Hamlin. "We did. People lose championships all the time. There's going to be a winner and there's going to be a loser. Unfortunately, we were on the bad side of it.''

That defeat became Hamlin's albatross. Combined with poor results in 2011, Hamlin's frustration grew. He consulted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who is known for his work with pro golfers. Other moves followed with the team changing crew chiefs. Mike Ford, who had been with Hamlin since his rookie season, was out. Darian Grubb, let go after guiding Tony Stewart to last year's title, was in.

It seemed like the perfect move when Hamlin won at Phoenix in the season's second race, but this year has been defined by Hamlin's inconsistency. He's not had more than two back-to-back top-10 finishes this season. Although he has a series-high four victories, he has finished 20th or worse eight times. Only Stewart and Gordon, whose seasons have been plagued by bad luck and mistakes, have had more finishes of 20th or worse than Hamlin's nine.

Then again, maybe Hamlin's up-and-down season is a sign. He entered the 2010 Chase with six wins, but also had eight finishes of 20th or worse; and just like this year, he didn't have more than two consecutive top-10 finishes in 2010.

Maybe that is a sign he can again contend for the title.

So is his age. Since 2001, the average age of the champion is 32.5 years old. Hamlin turns 33 the day of the Homestead race.

But even with his previous disappointment and the opportunity he faces, he says he feels no urgency to win the title.

"The only reason is that I'm not in my mid-40s,'' said Hamlin, who has made the Chase all seven years he's run full-time in Cup. "I've got some time. I know I'm with a race team that's very capable of winning a championship for years to come, but you want to jump on all of those opportunities that you have.''

Should he be racing for the title again late in the Chase, Hamlin knows the voices will become louder from critics questioning if he can win it.

"I wish it just could be experience beats all, and that's how you win a championship,'' said Hamlin. "But nowadays it's about having an awesome pit crew, a guy on the box that makes great calls, and fast cars.

"Other than that, the driver's got to stay focused and obviously give good feedback. There's bits and pieces I've learned to each and every Chase that you apply to every year that's after that.''

Hamlin's confident he's learned enough to win the championship. He even said he anticipates the champion will need to win two or three races in the Chase.

"I think I've learned how to close this last year and a half better than I did in 2010,'' said Hamlin, of finishing races. "I won a lot of races in 2010 because I think our cars were better than anybody else and we dominated races. We now are closing at the end, we're passing at the end, we're figuring out how to win with not the best car and I think the championship will go the same way.

"All I can do is the best I can do. I'm going against what in my opinion is the best driver in NASCAR history in Jimmie Johnson. If I beat him at year's end for the championship, then I'll consider myself the best at least for one year. I have no question in believing I'm as good as anyone but I think until you have a championship, people are not going to give you the respect that they give the Stewarts, the Johnsons and the Gordons.''

Now is his time to prove he belongs among the sport's champions by winning his first title.