From fender rubbing to late-night clubbing—to tweeting about both—Sprint Cup contender Denny Hamlin is a high-octane blend of old school grit and cutting-edge cool

By the time NASCAR's season-ending banquet was winding down at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel, word had spread from table to table like middle-school gossip: Denny's throwing a blowout at the Palms. Only to be followed by another line, spoken in hushed tones: And I heard he's spending 100 grand. To celebrate his fifth-place finish in the final points standings, Denny Hamlin was indeed about to host a bash deep into the December night—and he was going six figures deep into his own pocket to do it.

The bigger names arrived on the 34th floor of the Palms as the clock neared midnight. Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain and Rockies first baseman Jason Giambi strolled into the two-story, 9,000-square-foot Hugh Hefner Sky Villa, overlooking the Strip. So did a half-dozen Sprint Cup drivers, including Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch and Michael Waltrip, who were treated to an open bar that included libations cascading down a large ice sculpture depicting the numeral 11, Hamlin's car number, and the logo of his sponsor, FedEx. The host worked the room, schmoozing his guests and keeping tabs on the music—perfect practice for a man about to open his own nightclub in Charlotte.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning, a buzz went through the suite when the one luminary no one was expecting to show, did. Jimmie Johnson had left the Champion's Party at the Palazzo, where he had been feted by the suits from Sprint, to get in on the real action. As Johnson mingled with the drivers and the other beautiful people filling the suite, Hamlin, dressed in a white button-down shirt and blue jeans, grabbed the microphone from the deejay. Aggressive and abrasive on the track, Hamlin is often shy and introspective off it. But not here, not in the middle of his own party. "I want to congratulate Jimmie on winning his fourth straight championship," Hamlin told the crowd. "He's a great champion."

As the applause died down, a look of intensity—at odds with the breezy surroundings—crossed Hamlin's boyish face. "And know this, Jimmie," he said, voice deepening. "Next year ... I'm coming for you!"

Yes, even before 2010 could commence, Hamlin, along with every other top-tier driver in NASCAR, had his sights trained on Johnson. Yet as the new season begins on Sunday with the 52nd running of the Daytona 500, it's the 29-year-old Hamlin who is the garage favorite to end Johnson's record run of four straight titles. Like annual contenders Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, Hamlin drives for a powerhouse team (Joe Gibbs Racing), is a proven winner (four checkered flags in '09) and has demonstrated the necessary consistency (11 top 10 finishes in a 13-race stretch last year).

And unlike those other title contenders, Hamlin has run wheel-to-wheel with Johnson when it matters most. Last season Hamlin finished ahead of Johnson in five of the 10 Chase races. What doomed Hamlin in the playoff run were two blown engines—resulting in a 42nd-place finish in Charlotte and a 38th at Talladega—and a crash late in the race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which caused him to finish 37th. If Hamlin had come in fifth or better in those three starts, he would have unseated Johnson in '09.

"Denny and his team have all the tools, but they're just looking for the road map of how to peak at the right time and how to win the Chase," the 34-year-old Johnson says. "He manages risk so well, and he adapts to all kinds of tracks, which are the two reasons why I think he's a real threat to us this year. We're going to be watching him and his team very closely."

"There is no question in my mind we can beat Jimmie," says Hamlin, who's entering his fifth full season on the circuit—which, incidentally, is when Johnson won his first championship. "We just can't beat ourselves. Those two engine failures in the Chase killed us, and I messed up in California because I knew we had a second-place car that day behind Jimmie. I was trying to be aggressive on a restart and get past Juan [Pablo Montoya]. I made that mistake because I let Jimmie get into my head. But that won't happen again, I promise. I really feel like this is our year."

If it is, then Hamlin will become almost certainly the first NASCAR driver in history to win a championship with a torn ACL. On Jan. 22, while playing in his regular pickup basketball game in Charlotte, Hamlin cut to the hoop and felt a pop in his left knee. Because the recovery time for ACL surgery is typically four to six months and Daytona was only three weeks away, Hamlin elected not to go under the knife until after the season. His doctors say he'll be uncomfortable behind the wheel for the next month, but that the damaged knee shouldn't be a serious roadblock in his pursuit of Johnson. On oval tracks drivers use their left leg sparingly; it's on road courses that they have to repeatedly shift and brake. The Sprint Cup circuit's two road-course races don't take place until the second half of the regular season, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., on June 20 and at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International on Aug. 8. The pressure on Hamlin's left knee will be minimal for the next four months.

Hamlin isn't concerned. Two days after his injury Hamlin, who is on Twitter more than anyone else in NASCAR and has the largest following (some 13,000) of any driver, tweeted: "i'm going to bed on this note.. no matter what people may think this injury will not stop me from being a contender this year." Four minutes later, presumably from his bed, Hamlin added, "nobody wants it as bad as me. PERIOD.. goodnight world."

I'm coming for you. It's a bright, clear winter afternoon at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, and Hamlin is tooling down the frontstretch in a Toyota Camry Hybrid street car. He and his Gibbs teammates, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, are giving fans rides around the 1.5-mile banked oval, and they've been warned: The speed limit is 70 mph. No exceptions.

Hamlin closes in on Busch, who has two silver-haired ladies in the backseat of his car. "Let's get him," says Hamlin, a mischievous grin on his face as he floors it. At 120 mph he dives to the inside of the track in Turn 2 and flies by Busch, coming within a few inches of the driver's side of Busch's car. "Look at how freaked out they are!" Hamlin says while gazing in his rearview mirror at Busch's passengers, whose hands are covering their mouths and whose eyes are popping. "This is awesome."

Ever since his arrival in the Cup series Hamlin has liked to mix it up on the track, which has made him NASCAR's closest thing to a young Tony Stewart. Take what happened late last season between Hamlin and Cup rookie Brad Keselowski. During a Nationwide Series event on Nov. 14 at Phoenix International Raceway, Keselowski tapped Hamlin from behind late in the race, sending Hamlin's car spinning and ending his chance at the checkered flag. After the race Hamlin calmly made it clear to reporters that he would have his sights set on Keselowski the following week at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "There's a lot of guys that have a lot of chips that they're going to cash in [on Keselowski]," he said. "I'm just going to be the first at the pay window." Hamlin even informed NASCAR of his plan. "You understand what I have to do, right?" Hamlin told officials in the NASCAR hauler. "I'm forewarning you, I'm going to wreck him. I ain't dealing with him no more."

Seven days later in South Florida, the first time Hamlin reached Keselowski's rear bumper—36 laps into the Ford 300—he administered a deliberate shove that sent Keselowski spinning down the track at 150 mph. The crowd went bananas. "I am a man of my word, and I said I was going to wreck him and I did," says Hamlin, who was assessed a one-lap penalty for rough driving. "And it felt damn good. I'm old school that way. If you wreck me, you will get wrecked."

Hamlin is indeed a throwback. The story of how he reached the Cup series seems ripped out of a driver's diary from the 1960s or '70s, when the sport was largely confined to the Southeast and the racers were gritty, take-no-b.s. guys from blue-collar backgrounds (page 58). Growing up in Chesterfield, Va., Hamlin started racing in go-karts when he was seven. He won in his first race, and even then he displayed exceptional car control—an ability to make the vehicle behave as if it were an extension of his body. Realizing that their son had a talent for racing, Hamlin's parents, Dennis and Mary Lou, who together owned a trailer-and-hitch company, poured everything they had into funding Denny's career. But in the fall of 2002, as Denny was consistently winning late-model races on backwater circuits throughout the Southeast, the Hamlins ran out of money. They had mortgaged their house twice, maxed out their credit cards and sold three beloved classic cars (a '32 Ford, '57 Chevy and '67 Camaro). In total they had spent nearly $1 million supporting their son's career.

"We were at the end of the line," Mary Lou recalls. "Denny was going to take over the trailer-and-hitch shop. He was a really good welder and electrical guy."

Hamlin's final race was scheduled to be at South Boston (Va.) Speedway. As he stood in line to check in, he told another driver that his career was about to end and that he was selling his race car. Jim Dean, a Legends team owner from Manassas, Va., overheard the conversation and after the race threw Hamlin a lifeline, telling the young driver he would cover his expenses for the rest of the season. A few days later Dean called Hamlin and offered an even sweeter deal: He wanted Hamlin to drive for his team. The next year, backed by Dean, Hamlin won 25 races in NASCAR's Dodge Weekly Racing Series. His brilliant run caught the attention of bird dogs from the Gibbs organization. Three years later, after a string of impressive tests and two seasons on the Nationwide (then Busch) circuits, Hamlin was piloting the number 11 FedEx car in the Cup series.

Although Hamlin has eight career victories and has qualified for the Chase in each of his four seasons, he has only recently developed into a bona fide contender. In his first three years he would light into his pit crew if he felt a pit stop wasn't executed quickly enough, which brought down his team's morale and only caused the pit road performance to deteriorate further. He would also publicly rip Gibbs's engine department whenever he blew a motor, further alienating his team. Last August, Gibbs called Hamlin into his office for a sit-down.

Hamlin first met the former Redskins coach as an 11-year-old, when he and his mother stood in line to get Gibbs's autograph before a race at Richmond International Speedway. Upon reaching Gibbs, Hamlin boldly told the team owner that he would one day drive for him. Mary Lou then snapped a photo of the two—a picture that is still as precious to Denny as any family heirloom. When Gibbs speaks, Hamlin listens as if the words are tumbling down from the clouds. At the meeting in August, Gibbs had a simple message for Hamlin: Grow up. Says Gibbs, "Denny matured real quickly [after that]. He became a team leader. I wouldn't trade him for anyone."

Over the last two years Hamlin has matured behind the wheel as well (notwithstanding some calculated aggression, as in the Keselowski incident). "In his first few seasons he would sometimes force things and get in trouble, but not anymore," says Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief. "He's just so calm in the car and doesn't get rattled. He rarely makes bad decisions."

Those last two sentences perfectly describe another Cup driver: Jimmie Johnson.

I'm coming for you. It's mid-January and Hamlin is riding shotgun in a friend's truck along the rolling back roads of Concord, N.C. Life is sweet right now. Hamlin has earned more than $27 million in winnings on the Cup circuit, which has allowed him to more than pay back his parents. He owns two houses, an airplane, five cars and a pair of courtside season tickets for the Bobcats. In a few days he'll open Butter NC, his nightclub in Charlotte. "I'm living a dream that I never thought I could have," Hamlin says. "I'm young. I like to have a good time. And I like to beat guys on Sunday. Life couldn't be much better."

As the two friends cruise along, Hamlin's mood turns serious when, in the distance, he spots the entrance to what has become his personal Death Star: Hendrick Motorsports, the home of Johnson's racing operation. "They've had a mechanical advantage over us the past few years, but we've worked our butts off and I honestly believe that we're now on the same playing field with them," Hamlin says, gazing up the road that leads to the sprawling Hendrick complex. "I can beat them. I tell Jimmie that all the time."

Hamlin has had plenty of chances to talk to Johnson this off-season. He recently bought a property in South Charlotte across the street from Gordon's and three down from Johnson's. "Jimmie's like the big brother and I'm the little brother," Hamlin says, still staring at the Hendrick headquarters. "He's been the best in the family forever, and now I'm trying to prove myself against him. He definitely knows I'm coming."

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Says Johnson of Hamlin, "He manages risk so well and he adapts to all kinds of tracks, which are two reasons he's a real threat to us."

PHOTOPhotograph by CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDEHOT SPOTS Hamlin, who took the number 11 to victory four times in '09, hopes to make his Charlotte club a winner too. PHOTOFRED VUICH[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE HAMLIN FAMILYRIGHT, KID At age 11 (top), Hamlin told Gibbs he'd drive for him someday; now they're a winning team. PHOTOSAM SHARPE/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above] PHOTOJENNIFER STEWART/US PRESSWIREPROMISED PAYBACK After Keselowski (Go Daddy) spun out Hamlin (20) at Phoenix, he returned the favor at Homestead (below) a week later. PHOTOTERRY RENNA/AP[See caption above] PHOTOFRED VUICH (JOHNSON) PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (STEWART) PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (BUSCH) PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (MONTOYA) PHOTODARREN CARROLL (EDWARDS) PHOTOGREG NELSON (MARTIN) PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCKNOSE TO TAIL Bump drafting (top) is no longer prohibited in turns; a spoiler (above) will soon replace the wing. PHOTOCHUCK BURTON/AP[See caption above]