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Hamlin putting rough Phoenix past behind him

February 26, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Joe Gibbs Racing driver admits he can't change history so he doesn't dwell on it

If anyone should have a grudge with Phoenix International Raceway, it should be Denny Hamlin.

He suffered through one of his most miserable days as a race car driver here last spring following knee surgery, fighting through pain to finish two laps down in 30th. Although he had substitute Casey Mears standing by, Hamlin gutted out the entire 378-mile distance, earning him praise and respect from teammates and competitors alike.

"It was a bad week for us at this race track, but I don't hold the race track accountable. It's more us and what we did."

--DENNY HAMLIN

Hamlin then dominated when the series returned last fall, leading 190 laps and building huge leads on the track, only to make an extra late-race pit stop for fuel. That little hiccup in what, up to that point, had been a perfect day left Hamlin with a 12th-place finish -- and might have cost him the 2010 championship.

So you could forgive Hamlin for perhaps being a bit insolent three months later, having to put up with the emotions involved in returning to the 1-mile flat track in the shadows of the Estrella Mountains. But he's of the mindset that he can't change history. Instead, he'd rather keep from repeating it.

"Really, every time I think about coming here, it's consistently about how can we redeem ourselves and go out there and win the race," Hamlin said. "It was a bad week for us at this race track, but I don't hold the race track accountable. It's more us and what we did. So for me, literally since I've been here, [I have] not thought about what happened last fall at all."

When Hamlin came to the media center in November for his post-race interview, he looked like anything but the driver still holding the points lead at that point. He looked dazed and stunned. And Hamlin said if there's one thing he's taken away from that day, it's a renewed determination.

"You look at the video of me after the race and you wouldn't think we'd still be leading the points," Hamlin said. "But it was just the passion because I knew that I let a big opportunity slip away from us in the sense of we could've gone to Homestead and just kind of rode around and collected a championship. For me, it was just my passion. It's always been in me -- the competitiveness has always been in me and it will never change."

So how did Hamlin put his Phoenix frustration behind him?

"I think just getting in the offseason -- getting away from racing for a little while definitely helps a lot," Hamlin said. "And then when you look back at it and I look back at it, it was a heck of a career year for myself. That's something that can't be overlooked because it's the best I've ever performed throughout my career -- my young career.

"I've only been around this team, me and this team, for five years. We've accomplished a lot of things that a lot of guys never will. So, for me, I just look forward and try and figure out how we can progress and get to No. 1."

Hamlin believes the fuel mileage issues that plagued the No. 11 Toyota team last fall have been resolved.

"Yeah, I think so," Hamlin said. "I think we've got a better grip on it surely than what we had here in the fall. I'm proud of this whole team. We've worked hard these last couple days to get this car tuned in, and really was never way off in any point. We didn't make a qualifying run in the final practice session [Friday]."

Hamlin will roll off 12th in Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500, four spots better than he did in November. He's perhaps proof of the adage that whatever doesn't wreck you makes you stronger.

"It makes you tough," Hamlin said. "Anybody will tell you, any heartache that you go through in life makes you tougher. So, for me, I think it's a lot like Jimmie [Johnson] said.

"He said when he finished second, he said it made him tough as nails. When it comes to those championship situations, I think it's going to be no different for myself. I've learned from it. There's some things I need to improve with my skill set inside the race car and I went to work on those."