Atlanta win has Denny Hamlin feeling revved up

Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Toyota, performs a burnout in celebration of winning...

Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Toyota, performs a burnout in celebration of winning the AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., Sept. 2, 2012. (WESLEY HITT/Getty Images for NASCAR/AFP)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:19 AM ET

Denny Hamlin has been there before — in the hunt for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship — but this season he says it is different.

And after his win Sunday night in the Advocare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway Hamlin feels certain that this time he and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team have what it takes to carry the big trophy home after the final race at Homestead Miami Speedway in November.

He’ll go into the Chase as the top seed with four victories — he believes he can add a fifth on Saturday at his home track of Richmond International Raceway — and the confidence that comes with experience.

“I look at Richmond as a race we’re going to go win,” Hamlin said. “That’s my track — it’s my best track arguably and I just think we have a lot of momentum now and for what it’s worth, I will try to take advantage of it.”

Hamlin said he has learned from the mistakes he made in 2006 when he was the first rookie to make the Chase for the Championship and in 2010 when he lost the Chase race to Jimmie Johnson in the Homestead final.

“It’s an advantage (to have gone through that),” he said after his win on Sunday. “When I was in the championship hunt my rookie year at Homestead, I was just so young and dumb, I had no idea what I was doing in the first place. I was having fun and real loose and just took the weekend as it was.

“In 2010 it was a pressure situation. We had just came off of a bad week before, and we just — the team just didn’t feel it that final week.

“I did an interview at the beginning of the year last year, and I said ‘Just put me back in that same situation any years down the road, and I promise I’ll win the championship when we leave Homestead’.”

Well, it looks as if this year he will get the chance to make that promise come true.

Hamlin, one of the best liked and most respected drivers in the Sprint Cup garage, switched crew chiefs this season firing Mike Ford and hiring Darian Grubb, the pit boss who guided Tony Stewart to his surprise championship last season.

He credits Grubb and the pit team with not only his victory on Sunday but for his entire season of good finishes.

“Our car faded a little bit (on Sunday), but the pit crew won me the race,” he said. “That’s what a championship team is all about is to have all those pieces of the puzzle put together and this year I think we have it all.

“Darian is getting the most out of our guys. I’ve never seen our crew just so happy to be at the race track every single week. Even in 2010 I didn’t see that from our guys.

“And for me I just — I’m just happy to be at the race track every single week knowing I can win a race. It doesn’t matter the race track anymore, it’s just I know we can win.

“Darian has just taken this program to that next level. He did it last year (with Stewart), and hopefully he’s got some of the magic saved up for us here in the next few weeks.”

Hamlin took a lot of heat in the media for what was perceived as a choke in those final races in 2010.

Even he admits that the pressure got to him but he said he is at peace with what happened and only wants the chance to be in that position again.

This time, he said, his attitude is 100% changed from two years ago when Johnson regularly needled him about being in the spotlight.

“All I can hope is that I get that opportunity again, and if I do, I’m going to live in the moment, and I’m going to focus everything I can do to win that race instead of worrying about the (Chase),” Hamlin said.

“I’m going to have a lot more fun and enjoy it.

“This year the race at Homestead is on my birthday, so I can’t think of a better present.”

IZOD TO BEEF UP SKED?

IZOD IndyCar Series boss Randy Bernard has pledged to have 19 races — up from 15 this season — in 2013.

Bernard told reporters in Baltimore this past weekend that he will meet with the IndyCar board Sept. 20 to get approval for his plan.

He hoped that the 2013 calendar would have been finalized by now but he said there were still some “wrinkles” to iron out.

“It’s more important to get it right,” Bernard said. “I’ve scheduled the next board meeting for Sept. 20, which is the date for final approval.

“So at this point we have 18 dates. I’m optimistic; I think we still need a minimum of 19 races, and that’s still my goal.”

He repeated that he wants several “doubles” in the schedule — two races on the same weekend — and that could include added races for Toronto and Edmonton.

“I am a huge supporter of some doubleheaders. I think doubleheaders help the promoters,” Bernard said. “It increases your (television) viewership and possibly doubles it. It can give more face time to our drivers who desperately need it.”

Not all IndyCar teams owners are on board with Bernard’s plan, however.

Roger Penske, the most respected of the owners, told USA Today that he favours having 15 to 16 races.

“We don’t need more races,” Penske said. “We need 15 or 16 venues, including Indianapolis, which will give us continuity.”


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