NASCAR: Hamlin’s changes paying off

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 15, 2009

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE ó Denny Hamlin set his mind on a championship during the offseason, when he vowed to make the personal changes needed to make this a breakthrough season.
OK, so maybe he’s still a little bit moody. And when he’s struggling, he’s still prone to take it out on his race team.
But something has definitely clicked this season, and Hamlin is now in position to take the next step in his career.
His confidence was soaring even before his long-awaited victory at hometrack Richmond International Raceway ó a win that has Hamlin steamrolling his way into the Chase for the championship convinced he can win his first Sprint Cup title.
“We’re the ones to beat right now,” Hamlin said before leading 299 of 400 laps in Saturday night’s victory. “We’re the only ones that can beat ourselves.”
Hamlin and the No. 11 team certainly did that over his first three seasons. He led laps, won races and made the Chase every season, but they just couldn’t mount a legitimate title run. There were mechanical failures, driver blowups and pit crew mistakes that always seemed to interfere with Hamlin reaching his goals.
So he started the year focused on turning a corner.
“What I don’t like to hear is, ‘You’ve got a lot of potential,’ ” Hamlin said in January. “It’s my fourth year. It’s time to be a champion. Not a guy that contends.”
Now it’s time for Hamlin to prove it.
He heads into this weekend’s Chase opener at New Hampshire seeded fourth in the standings, just 20 points behind leader Mark Martin. More important, his mindset is clearly changed as he moves into what his Joe Gibbs Racing team believes is the most important part of the Chase for Hamlin.
He was ecstatic as he claimed the checkered flag Saturday, shouting “This is my house!” over his radio.
Then, in a nationally televised Victory Lane interview, he warned his competition he’s going for the title.
“They better watch us,” he declared. “I am telling you, this team is dangerous.”