Hamlin's Swagger Is Back
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on October 26, 2013 | 11:24 A.M. EST
Denny Hamlin is focused on scoring his fifth career victory at Martinsville Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)
MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Denny Hamlin punctuated his pole Friday at Martinsville Speedway with a prediction.
“See you Sunday night,’’ he said.
It was his way of saying that he planned to return to the media center after the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 to discuss his victory.
Hamlin’s swagger is back. At least for a weekend.
That attitude has been absent since the last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series raced here in the spring. He’s endured a miserable stretch that saw him go 16 races without a top-10 finish and become the R&D stephchild for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates who are racing for a title.
His season turned when he suffered an L1 compression fracture in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway after dueling Joey Logano for the win. The first race Hamlin missed was the Martinsville spring race, but he still had some of that swagger.
After watching Jimmie Johnson score his second consecutive victory at this historic half-mile track in April. Hamlin tweeted that “@JimmieJohnson won’t have it that easy in the fall I promise. Congrats to them.’’
Crew chief Chad Knaus was asked about Hamlin’s tweet that day and said: “I think it's pretty obvious that it's not Denny, it's the Gibbs cars. If you look at Matt Kenseth, he couldn't get out of his own way when he was in a Roush car here, and he went out there and was making it happen. I think it's probably more car than driver here for that team.’’
When Knaus’ comment was mentioned to Hamlin on Friday, he said: “That’s not really fueling me that much, it’s more self-motivation but thanks for reminding me. I will use it.’’
Hamlin will use everything he can to end a 36-race winless drought. He’s won at least one race every year the past seven seasons and doesn’t want to see that streak end. He knows this weekend is his best chance to keep that streak going.
He’s won four times at Martinsville and has nine top-five finishes. He’s among the few drivers who can challenge Johnson, the points leader, at this track. Combined, those two have won 11 of the last 14 races at this track.
Hamlin also isn’t in R&D mode this weekend. He has the best car in his stable.
“Our team has put a large emphasis on this race in particular,’’ he said.
A win won’t fix what has happened this season, but it could help put those struggles further behind.
“It's been a very trying year,’’ Hamlin said. “I guess that would probably be the key word to our year, but you've just got to suck it up and realize that we had seven great years and there's a lot of great drivers that have missed the Chase once or twice and a lot of great drivers that have gone winless throughout a season.
“It doesn't make them any less of a driver or hurt their legacy at all because we all know how good they are, and we've just got to battle through it. This has just been one of those years that's going to make you tougher and stronger in the long run."
It’s also a year that could feature more challenges for Hamlin. He has not decided if to have offseason back surgery to repair previous issues.
“I have been feeling so much better this last month or so that I'd like to steer away from surgery if possible,’’ he said. “Obviously, I don't want to just cover up the pain with the treatments that I've been doing. That just numbs you a little bit. We still have an issue there that we have to address in the next month or so."
For now, his focus is on Martinsville and winning. With it comes a confident driver few have seen much of this year.
Motor Racing Network – “The Voice of NASCAR” – will have live coverage of Sunday's Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 from Martinsville Speedway at 12:30 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MotorRacingNetwork.com.