[media-credit name=”Credit: Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR” align=”alignright” width=”244″][/media-credit]The 2012 Sprint Cup Series season started with a running tally of how many races Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin would win. A simple bet amongst outsiders interested to see how Stewart would do with new crew chief Steve Addington, while his championship winning crew chief from last season, Darian Grubb, joined Hamlin at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Hamlin struck first in Phoenix, Stewart followed up the following week in Las Vegas. The two went back and forth through the middle of the season, but both stalled out as the Chase neared. Until Stewart suddenly faded and again wrote himself off and Hamlin found the Chase magic.
Four wins entering the Chase, the top seed and nods of being the favorite. So far, so good with the playoffs just two weeks old. Dominating and winning will do that to for a team, a team that has last year’s championship leader atop the pit box. Making Sunday’s results, and Hamlin’s strong words, carrying a lot of meaning.
“Doesn’t hurt to have a little confidence in your team. I know we made couple of big mistakes over the last two weeks but I said we were fast enough to make it up and we were. I’m going to have these guys back until they die, this is my team. Just excited about everything,” said Hamlin in Victory Lane, noting his lightning fast racecar.
“You don’t wan to sound too cocky, but I knew what we were capable of. Our car was extremely strong and I have a really good knack for this racetrack. The two together with a crew chief like Darian, it’s a winning combination.”
Hamlin led 193 of 300 laps on Sunday in New Hampshire. His fifth win of the season, and third in five weeks has him sitting pretty in points. Much needed after a disappointing ending to Chicago last weekend. Third in points, seven behind new point leader Jimmie Johnson heading into Dover. And Dover is a different story.
One which can be talked about next week. The story right now is the combination of Hamlin and Grubb. Because for as much as preseason predictions and hopes can be drummed up, these two are living large and making them all look good.
They are the favorite. They are the best team in the NSCS right now. It’s a matter of doing what they did on Sunday, execute to perfection and finish the job. If he does that, he’ll be the champion. Regardless of what Johnson is doing, regardless of everyone believing he’s in control of the championship; because Hamlin is winning and has the confidence.
“There’s a lot of reason why you handle things differently. But, you learn from over time, what it takes to build a championship team and what makes these guys tick,” said Hamlin to reporters about his FedEx team. “You don’t think as a driver that your emotion has any bearing on how they perform but it really does. I find over the seven years that I’ve been here, it’s just that they really feed off of you attitude and your outlook. And obviously when I have confidence, they have a ton of confidence.
“I just learned that over time and really for me, I just learned to handle the bad days better and knowing that I’m one of the handful of drivers that have a great ride, an awesome sponsor, and have a championship-winning team backing me.
“So, I can handle the bad days when I put the grand scheme of things in a bigger picture.”
Amazing how much Hamlin has changed in just a short time. Confidence to overcome whatever hurdles can be thrown his way. Such as Friday in qualifying, being 32nd fastest after being in his own league in all the practice sessions. In the past, Hamlin might have folded for the weekend, but this weekend he stood by the confidence he from last weekend, saying he could win. They did, as each man did their job to perfection. When they don’t, they man up and bring the team that much closer.
The driver believes in himself, in the team – as already stated – and most importantly, in the crew chief. Grubb is as big a story as Hamlin, part of the winning combination Hamlin noted in Victory Lane. He won five races with Stewart last season. All five races were in the Chase. He’s won five alone with Hamlin already this season and there are still eight races left.
“It’s a lot of fun just to bring a piece like that to the racetrack. The whole Joe Gibbs organization did an awesome job preparing that one especially for Loudon,” Grubb said. “It’s the best car in our ship. We knew it was going to give us our best chance to win and as we ran here in the spring we knew we had a shot at it.
“So, wanted to make sure we gave Denny every chance to get that out there. We are just disappointed we didn’t show the qualifying effort because I think we could have won everything this weekend. But that just made the show that much better with Denny being able to drive from the back and put on a show there.”
And for now, Hamlin and Grubb are the show, looking good for those still keeping score on his performance matchup with Stewart. For their title hopes, a few weeks ago it just sound good, now it looks good.
Yet, it could all change again next weekend, or the week after that. It is the Chase, they are the best in the business, and it won’t come easy.
Except, it’s not stopping Hamlin from standing tall and pointing for the stars. Just as he did late Sunday afternoon, after climbing emerging from his victory smoke on the New Hampshire frontstretch.