Biding His Time
Super soph Denny Hamlin is sitting pretty at fourth in the point standings, prepping for a run at the Hendrick Gang
THOUGH HE'S WINLESS this season, reigning Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin isn't about to concede the Nextel Cup to Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports tandem who've combined for seven victories in the first 11 races. Why should he? The 26-year-old Hamlin is off to one of the strongest starts to a sophomore season in recent memory: After top 10 finishes in five of the last six points races, he's fourth in the standings and has led more laps (611) than any other driver except Gordon (674). "We feel we've had the better car more times than not," says Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief on the number 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevy. "It's a matter of time before Denny breaks through."
And to that end Ford is working to have the better pit crew as well. After two dropped lug nuts during a late pit stop at Darlington on May 13 cost Hamlin dearly—because of the delay he fell from first to 15th with 65 laps to go—Ford overhauled his crew. He replaced three of the seven members of Hamlin's over-the-wall gang and changed the assignments of two others. Both driver and chief say they had been discussing the moves for a while (there were similar mishaps at Martinsville and Phoenix earlier this season), but there can be little doubt that changes became more urgent following the easygoing Hamlin's blunt postrace comments. "If we lose by 20, 30 points when it comes down to the championship," Hamlin said, after finishing second to Gordon at Darlington, "we know exactly where we lost it, and that's on pit road."
It's unusual for such direct criticism to be aired outside of the Nextel Cup garage. And while Hamlin says he was merely venting his frustrations, his remarks made it clear that he's no longer content to play the part of deferential rookie. "That's a big deal for him to do that," says Carl Edwards, who drives the number 99 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. "He doesn't say a lot of things like that, so he must have felt strongly about it."
Says Hamlin, "I'm slowly but surely trying to figure out the role I'm playing as a leader with this team. I still wouldn't take back anything I said."
With little to cheer about this season, Gibbs Racing needs him to step up. Even lead driver Tony Stewart, the two-time Cup champion who's sixth in the points standings, is winless in 2007. The good news is that the Gibbs operation has been nearly as dominant as Hendrick in the Car of Tomorrow. Nobody on the circuit has led as many laps in the CoT as Hamlin (563), while Stewart has four top 10 finishes in five CoT races. That bodes well for the rest of the regular season, which includes six more CoT events (out of 11 total), and is particularly encouraging when looking ahead to the Chase for the Nextel Cup—in which five of the 10 events will be raced in the CoT.
For now it's a matter of bringing results in line with potential for NASCAR's super soph. "We feel like we're doing everything right to be a championship team," says Hamlin. "We made changes now so that everybody [in his pit crew] will be used to what they're doing by Chase time. It should work out for the best in the long run."
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Mark Beech's Power Rankings and Racing Fan columns.
1 The goodwill with which Juan Pablo Montoya began his rookie season is being used up quickly. His aggressive driving has ruffled more than a few feathers in the garage. In last Saturday's Nextel Open, Montoya caused a multicar accident on the first lap when he got loose under David Gilliland. Said AJ Allmendinger, whose number 84 Toyota was one of six cars knocked out of the race in the crack-up, "Just another stupid mistake by the same guy." It was the seventh wreck Montoya (42, above, in a May 6 Richmond incident) has been involved in this season.
2 The news that 1988 Cup champ Bill Elliott will come out of semiretirement to drive the number 21 Ford exposes a flaw in NASCAR's arcane championship provisional rule. The Wood Brothers car, which has been driven by Ken Schrader, ranks 39th in owner points, meaning it must qualify on speed for each race. But the presence of Elliott, who has six championship provisional entries, allows the underperforming Wood team to run six races without having to qualify. Provisionals weren't a big deal a few years ago when almost every car that showed up could get into the field; but now, with so many more teams trying to qualify every week, dropping in with a provisional isn't fair.
JOHN HARRELSON/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR (HAMLIN)
LEADING MAN Hamlin (left, and 11) has led more laps than any other driver but Gordon.
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES (CAR)
NICK LAHAN/GETTY IMAGES (MONTOYA)