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Rodman: Disappointment not burning Hamlin after missing sweep

May 01, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- After Saturday night's Crown Royal presents the Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Denny Hamlin had no idea how many races had been run this season -- but even though last year's championship runner-up has yet to win in 2011, and he wasn't able to really challenge Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch in the stretch, he wasn't the least bit distressed.

"It's my best finish of the year -- I'm ecstatic, to be honest with you," Hamlin said. "You can't be mad at second place."

"I need to figure out more things to do to be better. That's what I got to do right now."

--DENNY HAMLIN

Uh, Busch himself has been pretty distressed at that, more than once. But Hamlin, whose average finish this season has been a shade higher than 20th before Saturday night, wouldn't go there -- not even close.

"Yeah, I want to win, trust me," Hamlin said. "It burns that you didn't win. But how we didn't win, I can live with."

Hamlin started 11th and was never scored outside the top eight in the 400-lap event. He led 38 laps -- his second-highest total of laps led this season, in which he's led in five of nine events. So about the only thing he had to make a face about was a gem of information he apparently gave Busch last year that enabled his younger teammate to beat him Saturday night.

"Yeah, I opened my mouth," Hamlin said. "I should have never told him."

But Hamlin then laughed about it -- though he wouldn't actually say anything more about it. Apparently, this past fall Hamlin gave Busch a tip about competing at this venue, and Busch put it to good effect Saturday night. And no, Busch wouldn't talk many specifics, either.

* Press Pass: Hamlin discusses his runner-up at RIR

But for Hamlin, who came into the weekend a very uncharacteristic 17th in the standings -- where he unofficially remained after Saturday's race, though he cut his deficit to the next position from 26 points to two -- it was nothing but a positive.

"That's the thing," Hamlin said. "If I don't tell [Busch] the things I know on short tracks, the crew chiefs don't relay information -- it's not a good team. Obviously we got paid back on the bigger intermediate tracks [last season]. I learned so much from him, talked to him.

"Yeah, it might cost me a race here or there because he outruns me. In the grand scheme of things, it makes me an overall better driver. And no, I won't tell you [what he told Busch]."

Earlier in the week, Hamlin said it was almost as if he had to learn how to win again -- in any division -- when he was asked if he could win his Thursday night Short Track Showdown charity race.

Hamlin actually grabbed that win, ironically from Busch, when his JGR teammate ran out of gas with less than a lap to go. Hamlin scored his second victory of the weekend on Friday night, when he won the Bubba Burger 250 Nationwide Series event.

So Hamlin laughed again, when he was asked about that statement, Saturday night -- though he was totally serious.

"I mean, this is a total different level -- it's a total different group of drivers and whatnot," Hamlin said. "As proud as I am of the wins that I had, I knew that it was going to be tenfold harder to do it on Saturday than it was Thursday and Friday.

"Everyone's so smart inside that Cup garage; it's hard to keep up. It's so hard to keep it when you do have an edge [so] when I say I need to figure out how to win, I need to learn more tricks.

"I need to figure out more things to do to be better. That's what I got to do right now."

According to his crew chief, Mike Ford, he virtually did it, Saturday night. Ford was pretty hot on the team's in-car radio after one less-than-flawless pit stop. But even though he told Hamlin he could win the race if "you race like you know how to race," and after the checkered flag, that "there was no one else [besides Busch] that had anything for you," Ford was satisfied with the outcome.

Ford spent a long time on pit road after the race, just staring at the front of the No. 11 Toyota that had been stopped in the "media bullpen" area where top-five finishers are interviewed. When Ford finally looked up, he smiled.

"It was a good night -- we had three cars here [along with third JGR driver Joey Logano's], and we all three brought good stuff, out of the same shop," Ford said. "And you all want to compete for the win, so we were able to compete with our teammate for the win."

And moving forward from here, it remains to be seen what this will mean for Hamlin's run into his sixth consecutive Chase.

"On the one hand, this was a huge weekend for us," Ford said. "But we get asked that question a lot, and I think it's an unfair question because I don't think it's any more important for us to win, than it is for anyone else out here.

"Everyone thinks we've had a terrible season because we haven't won, and this-and-that; but the truth of the matter is, it's just as important for everyone out here."

Hamlin thinks the payoff will be definite.

"I hope so," Hamlin said. "Usually it's about five, six races [into the season] before we kind of get going. Maybe it's just this year -- I don't know what race this is, about eight or so -- so maybe it's taken us a few extra races.

"We know when we come to these race tracks we're going to be contenders for a win. I never even thought about one struggle that we had earlier in the year when we come here, to Richmond. It's like, 'OK, we should win, regardless of what's happened -- how bad we ran up until this point.'

"You forget about all that when you go to a race track that you have a lot of success [at]. Hopefully this is the point in which we turn it around."

"It's definitely a momentum booster, and a confidence booster," Ford said. "But every time we come here to Richmond [we expect to run well. We haven't figured out how to win the spring race -- we've got the fall race down pretty good [winning the last two September races] but the spring race we're just a little bit short every time, so we've got to figure that out."

Team president J.D. Gibbs has no doubt what the payoff might be.

"They're fairly quiet guys," Gibbs said of Ford and Hamlin. "They know they're good -- and that they've got a good program and a good team. But until you see it, consistently -- this sport really is, kind of a 'what have you done for me lately' type sport.

"So I think, for those guys, to have that run that they had [Saturday] night -- they were really good, they practiced well, they raced well and overall that was a big encouragement. So our hope is, on down the road you'll see that pay off and be fruitful."

Hamlin's counting on Saturday's result, as well as the wins on Thursday and Friday nights, having a positive effect.

"Well, it lets you know that it can happen, for sure [and] that's a good thing," Hamlin said of a potential momentum swing. "We still had some minor struggles on pit road. We lost the lead early. We lost a lot of time early on pit road. But those guys rebounded and we had some great stops late -- they made up for it.

"We really just had a solid weekend. No mechanical issues, engine issues or anything like that. This is what we're capable of doing every single week if we put it all together."

That makes it sound like Hamlin feels like he can win right through the month of May, when the series goes to Darlington, Dover and Charlotte on consecutive point-race weekends.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.