Denny Hamlin is so hungry for a victory that, if given the chance at Bristol Motor Speedway, he most certainly would have moved teammate Kyle Busch out of his way.
“For sure,” Hamlin said. “He’s won too much.”
He wasn’t kidding, either.
Alas, he never had the opportunity to use Bristol’s legendary “bump-and-run” on Busch because Hamlin couldn’t get close enough to catch his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. He had to settle for a second-place finish Sunday that stretched his winless streak to a frustrating 35 races.
So Busch left Bristol with his second win in three races, 10th overall since joining Joe Gibbs Racing last season. Hamlin, meanwhile, has won just once over the same span and can’t help but wonder why his No. 11 team can’t contend with Busch’s bunch.
“Those guys are solid. They qualify well and as a result get a good pit stall,” Hamlin said. “Their pit crew is always consistent, and they work really hard at it. And on the short runs, Kyle has a way of taking off really, really good. He’s got that car. He’s got that raw speed that I just don’t have for 20 laps. And it pays big dividends to that race team.
“Luckily, we’re in the same stable, so we know everything he has. If there’s anything we need to work on, it’s me.”
That admission is proof just how far Hamlin has come after three full seasons with JGR. In the past, the problem would have been anyone’s fault but Hamlin’s, and he would have publicly placed the blame on his team.
But Hamlin came into this season determined to do things differently. Tired of being known as a driver with a ton of potential, Hamlin wants to finally start living up to his lofty expectations.
Although he’s got four career victories, 61 top-10 finishes and a coveted spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in all three of his seasons, he’s yet to consistently contend for the title. He was a career-best third in the final 2006 standings but dropped off to 12th and eighth the next two seasons.
He spoke often during the off- season about his desire to become a champion, a goal that would require much more maturity from the 28-year-old Virginian. His awakening coincided with twotime champion Tony Stewart’s departure from JGR, leaving the organization in need of a team leader.
Hamlin wants to step up, and team owner Joe Gibbs has noticed the shift in attitude, the renewed commitment to his race team and the better communication with crew chief Mike Ford.
“Denny did really set his jaw. He’s been on it. He’s been after it hard,” Gibbs said. “As much as anything, it’s your attitude. We talked quite a bit before the year. I think he spent a lot of time with Mike. I think you can tell the way he reacts when something does happen to the race team, he’s very strong about it.
“They’re not going to leave anything unturned around our place to try and keep from getting everything we can for the 11 car.”
It didn’t work out Sunday, though, when Hamlin needed a flawless final pit stop to get him out first ahead of Busch. Although he did gain one spot on pit road, Busch beat him out and Hamlin was stuck in second the rest of the way. Any chance he had of chasing down his teammate was lost when Jimmie Johnson moved onto Hamlin’s bumper, and Hamlin had to fight to hold onto his season-best second-place finish.
“I knew unless we got out ahead of him on that last pit stop, it was going to be tough,” he said. “We were able to stay within two or three car lengths, but that’s as close as we’d been all day on the short runs. Our car takes so long to get going. If we get out in pit road in front of him, he was going to have a time getting around me, I can assure you of that.”
In the past, Hamlin’s disappointment would have been overwhelming. Remember, he once publicly blasted his pit crew after they botched a late stop at Darlington, and it triggered a team shakeup the next week.
Then last August in Michigan, after his motor failed with six laps to go to put his berth in the Chase field in jeopardy, he openly criticized JGR’s engine department and crew.
This time, he was able to see the positives. It was his second top-10 finish of the season, and it moved him up six spots in the standings to eighth. It also gave him some momentum heading into Martinsville Speedway, where Hamlin won his only race last season in a breakthrough victory in his home state of Virginia.
“You take (it),” he said. “It puts us in the Chase right now. So that’s a good day for us.”