When Denny Hamlin passes through Richmond, he’ll often make time for the 25-minute drive to his hometown of Chesterfield, Va.
Though he and most of his immediate family members have moved south to North Carolina, Hamlin can still find enough of his past in the tiny burg to make it a worthwhile trip, whether he’s checking in with a high school buddy or just cruising the streets to see what new businesses have popped up since his last visit.
“I’ve always considered where I grew up a small town,” Hamlin said in a telephone interview. “Every time I feel like it’s grown up a little more.”
Fresh off back-to-back victories, Hamlin arrived at Richmond International Raceway this week as the hottest driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He will try to keep that momentum rolling at his home track in Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 — the final race before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.
Hamlin vaulted into seventh in the point standings with his recent success, and he looks to continue his roll with another win Saturday. With memories of a near-miss runner-up finish in the 2010 Chase still fresh, Hamlin thinks he might finally be ready to take home the Sprint Cup title.
“You have to be able to put it all together,” said Hamlin, who has won two of the past three fall races at Richmond. “If you have a year where you have the team and equipment to win a championship, as a driver, you feel like you have to go out and get the job done.”
After a lackluster ninth-place series finish last year, Hamlin has re-asserted his position as a serious contender this season. In the offseason, he wanted to get away from racing and spent a month and a half living in Arizona, far away from the Joe Gibbs Racing garage in Charlotte.
He came back with a rejuvenated outlook and a new crew chief in Darian Grubb, who guided Tony Stewart to the title last season with five victories in 10 Chase races. With successive wins at Bristol and Atlanta, Hamlin now has a series-best four victories with 11 top-five finishes in 25 races.
Hamlin, a lifelong Redskins fan, picked up Joe Gibbs Racing’s 99th career NASCAR Cup series victory last weekend when he beat Jeff Gordon in a green-white-checkered flag finish. He said he would like to be the one to get the team owned by the Hall of Fame Redskins coach to the century mark at a track where his average finish in 13 Cup races is 7.3.
“I know what I need to feel in the race car when I run here,” Hamlin said. “As soon as I get out there, I’ll know if I’ve got a car that’s capable of winning or if we’re going to need to make some adjustments.”
Some enter Saturday’s race with much more at stake. Eight drivers remain in contention for the final two wild card spots in the Chase with Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch holding the inside position. Gordon, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards are in the group with hopes of sneaking into the 12-driver championship field with a strong run Saturday.
“I love the format — I think it’s fantastic,” said Gordon, who needs to win or beat Busch by 13 spots to leapfrog into the final wildcard spot. “I don’t want to be in this position ever again, but just looking at it overall for the sport, it’s great.”
This time around, Hamlin, 31, won’t have to deal with that sort of pressure, but he knows a lackluster run could derail the good feelings he’s built up the past few weeks.
He’ll run in both the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup races, which he said will likely keep him from visiting Chesterfield this weekend.
Nonetheless, as Hamlin gears up for a run at the Sprint Cup title, he should get another boost from a well-timed stop at the track where he grew up attending races.
“This is when you want to start performing well,” Hamlin said. “Obviously, you’re a little more confident when you go out there and know you have cars capable of winning. It’s just a matter of if we can keep up that trend for the next 10 weeks.”