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Party Hard And Race Harder

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."

CHASING JIMMIE

Counting Denny Hamlin, only a half-dozen drivers have a realistic shot at keeping Jimmie Johnson from winning his fifth straight Sprint Cup title. Here are the five other primary threats to JJ's reign

1. TONY STEWART, Stewart Haas Racing

2009: 4 wins, 23 top 10s, 6th in standings

Why he can beat JJ: Coming off an impressive debut season, the Stewart Haas team—from the chassis department to the engine specialists to the pit crew—will be more in sync in its second go-round.

Why he can't beat JJ: No driver-owner has won a Cup since Alan Kulwicki in 1992. Even the peripatetic Stewart will be stretched thin by his dual roles.

Key to the season: The last three years Stewart has not finished strong over the final two months. To win his third points title, he'll need to heat up when the temperatures cool down—just as he did in 2005, when he was the last driver to beat Johnson in the Chase.

2. KYLE BUSCH, Joe Gibbs Racing

2009: 4 wins, 13 top 10s, 13th in standings

Why he can beat JJ: No other driver in the series possesses as much car control and natural ability as Busch, who can get hot at any time and win three or four races in a row.

Why he can't beat JJ: Busch's all-or-nothing approach often puts his car in harm's way, resulting in wrecks that lead to far too many 20th-place-and-worse finishes.

Key to the season: If Busch keeps his emotions in check and focuses on top 10s rather than risking accidents while going for wins, he'll contend to the end. A lot will also depend on how Busch meshes with Dave Rogers, who took over as his crew chief in November.

3. CARL EDWARDS, Roush Fenway Racing

2009: 0 wins, 14 top 10s, 11th in standings

Why he can beat JJ: Edwards is the circuit's best driver on 1.5-mile tracks, and five of the 10 Chase races are run at the intermediate-length venues.

Why he can't beat JJ: Edwards's performance on short tracks (career average finish: 17.0) and superspeedways (21.7) hasn't been up to snuff.

Key to the season: Roush Fenway struggled last season, winning only three races after taking 11 checkered flags in '08. (Edwards, who won eight times in '08, went winless.) After intense work in the off-season, the team feels it has closed the gap on Hendrick Motorsports. If it has, Edwards will again be doing backflips.

4. MARK MARTIN, Hendrick Motorsports

2009: 5 wins, 21 top 10s, 2nd in standings

Why he can beat JJ: Martin makes fewer mistakes than any other driver, has first-rate equipment and is a threat to finish in the top five every week. Plus, no driver wants it more than the five-time Cup runner-up.

Why he can't beat JJ: Martin is 51, and no driver in his 50s has won the Cup. Even Martin's skills will start to erode at some point.

Key to the season: Stamina. Martin is a fitness freak, whose workout regimen kept him going through 38 races (counting the Bud Shootout and the All-Star event) last season. If he can again make it fresh to the Chase, he'll get one more chance at outracing Johnson.

5. JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

2009: 0 wins, 18 top 10s, 8th in standings

Why he can beat JJ: In his first Chase last year, Montoya had more top fives in the 10-race playoff (five) than he had in the 26-race regular season (two). The former F/1 star and Indy 500 winner has learned how to run up front in NASCAR.

Why he can't beat JJ: Montoya remains inconsistent—three finishes of 35th or worse in the Chase—and still struggles on intermediate tracks (career average finish: 21.5).

Key to the season: Earnhardt Ganassi must prove it can run with the superteams week to week, and Montoya must limit his mistakes. If both happen, Montoya, the dark horse, could win it all.

A NUDGE OR TWO

Bumping? That's just racin'. Wings? Who needs 'em? With a few key tweaks to the rule book, NASCAR hopes to rev up the on-track action and stoke fan interest

Imagine this scenario: Two drivers running nose to tail during Sunday's Daytona 500, banging into each other in every turn—hard. As the tension ratchets up and the laps wind down, one driver, let's call him Tony Stewart, slams so violently into the rear bumper of the other driver, let's call him Kyle Busch, that it causes Busch to crash into the wall and triggers a multicar wreck. The next week in Fontana, Calif., Busch, seeking retribution, intentionally dumps Stewart into the wall at 190 mph, causing another big pileup. And what does NASCAR do to punish Busch for this blatant act of retaliatory aggression? Absolutely nothing.

Welcome to the new NASCAR system of justice, where boys will be allowed to be boys, with officials no longer punishing drivers (at least not severely) for payback wrecks. That shift in policy is one of several rule changes instituted this off-season to encourage more aggressive driving and—NASCAR hopes—more exciting racing. Certainly the sport could use a shot of adrenaline; TV ratings and attendance have been falling for the last two years. "We're putting things back in the drivers' hands," NASCAR chairman Brian France said when announcing the rules changes in January. "We want to see drivers mixing it up. This is a contact sport and you're going to see more contact."

In the past NASCAR handed out penalties for rough driving that ranged from an enforced stop on pit road to being black-flagged from the race. But now it will be up to the drivers to police themselves "within reason," according to the new rules. "This is the way it should be," says Denny Hamlin. "We can take care of things ourselves, which is what they did back in the day."

Other rule changes include the following:

• Go ahead and bump

Bump drafting will be allowed all the way around the track at Daytona and Talladega. NASCAR previously had banned bump drafting—one car slamming into the rear of another to catapult both forward in an aerodynamic draft—in the corners because it often leads to wrecks.

• Let it flow

The carburetor restrictor plates used at Daytona and Talladega—which reduce airflow to the engine, thus limiting power and reducing speed—will have the largest air holes since 1989. The bigger openings will give the drivers increased horsepower, added speed and more throttle response.

• Taking wing

The rear wing on the cars will be replaced with a spoiler this spring, possibly as early as March. This will give the cars a more traditional look—something that fans have been asking for since the introduction of the Car of Tomorrow in 2007—and give the drivers added downforce, which will make the cars easier to drive in traffic and through the corners. NASCAR hopes better-handling cars will encourage drivers to attempt more daring moves.

"Drivers were asking for these changes, and NASCAR listened," says Jimmie Johnson. "It could get very, very interesting out there this year."

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Photograph by CLAY PATRICK MCBRIDE

HOT SPOTS Hamlin, who took the number 11 to victory four times in '09, hopes to make his Charlotte club a winner too.

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FRED VUICH

[See caption above]

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COURTESY OF THE HAMLIN FAMILY

RIGHT, KID At age 11 (top), Hamlin told Gibbs he'd drive for him someday; now they're a winning team.

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SAM SHARPE/US PRESSWIRE

[See caption above]

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JENNIFER STEWART/US PRESSWIRE

PROMISED PAYBACK After Keselowski (Go Daddy) spun out Hamlin (20) at Phoenix, he returned the favor at Homestead (below) a week later.

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TERRY RENNA/AP

[See caption above]

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FRED VUICH (JOHNSON)

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NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (STEWART)

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NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (BUSCH)

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NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (MONTOYA)

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DARREN CARROLL (EDWARDS)

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GREG NELSON (MARTIN)

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NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK

NOSE TO TAIL Bump drafting (top) is no longer prohibited in turns; a spoiler (above) will soon replace the wing.

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CHUCK BURTON/AP

[See caption above]