If Denny Hamlin wins his first Cup championship this fall—and three races into the Chase he trails leader Jimmie Johnson by only eight points—it will be because he's learned the virtue of slowing down. No longer an impetuous risk-taker behind the wheel, the 29-year-old Hamlin has become a new driver in 2010: one who treats his equipment as if it's fine china, avoids accidents as if he could predict when they're going to happen and is quietly content to light-foot his way to a top 12 finish. Yes, Denny Hamlin suddenly has become ... Jimmie Johnson.
"It's taken me a while, but I've learned that the way Jimmie has won his championships is that he never, ever beats himself," Hamlin says. "If I get passed by Jimmie on the track, I can't stress. We just have to limit our mistakes and stick to our plan."
So far he is executing his strategy to near perfection. Traditionally a slow starter in the Chase because the first few tracks on the schedule are his weakest, Hamlin—who won a series-high six races during the regular season—merely wanted to finish in the top 15 on Sunday at Kansas Speedway, where his career average finish was 19.0. On Lap 155 of 267, he was in 21st position and struggling to stay on the lead lap. But during a caution-flag pit stop, Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief, overhauled the setup on his driver's number 11 Camry, hoping to improve the balance of the car so that Hamlin could charge through corners without feeling as if he were sliding on ice. He soon began making up ground on the leaders. He finished 12th behind winner Greg Biffle, and lost only 43 points in the standings to Johnson, who finished second. It was the sort of solid, thoroughly professional performance upon which championships are built.
"In years past I would have hit the panic button and overdriven the car and probably crashed on a day like this," Hamlin said. "When our worst day is 12th, I can live with that. I actually feel better than ever because the best is yet to come for us."
October 10, 2010
Hamlin's favorite tracks all fall in the second half of the Chase. According to his playoff plan, he will aggressively go for wins on Oct. 24 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway (where he's won the last two Cup races); on Nov. 7 at Texas Motor Speedway (where he won in April) and on Nov. 21 in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (where he won last November). In the other four races he simply wants top 10 finishes. "[Denny has] lost championships to Jimmie," says J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing, "and sometimes you have to lose one before you're ready to win one."
As Hamlin walked out of the Kansas infield and headed for his private jet late on Sunday, a fan asked him when he was going to win again. "Our time is coming," Hamlin said. "It's coming."
Now on SI.com
For Lars Anderson's weekly preview of Sprint Cup races, go to SI.com/racing