'Called shot' prediction nothing new for Hamlin
March 29, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- One week after missing a race with an eye ailment, Denny Hamlin says there's nothing wrong with his vision. Now he's doing his best to see into the future.
Hamlin led the opening NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice and claimed a front-row spot for Sunday's main event at Martinsville Speedway. In between those two Friday activities, he threw down the gauntlet to the field with a bold prediction for victory, sealing it with two words: "I promise."
Hamlin returns to competition Sunday, emboldened by the early strength of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota on the 0.526-mile track and more than mildly chafed by naysayers extrapolating speculation that his active social life had a part in his medical absence. Those two factors have Hamlin focused -- literally and figuratively -- on scoring his fifth career Martinsville victory in Sunday's STP 500 (1 p.m. ET, FOX).
"It obviously shows that we're very capable of winning the race this weekend," Hamlin said Friday after topping the practice chart, "and I'm pretty sure we will."
Hamlin has had success in the past with making guarantees. In the opening race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason in 2012, Hamlin ran out of fuel on the final lap at Chicagoland Speedway and faded to a 16th-place finish. He tweeted shortly afterward: "This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week."
Hamlin did, rallying from a 32nd-place starting spot to lead 193 of 300 laps at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and re-inserting his name among the championship contenders. He made a post-race allusion to the guarantee, pantomiming a called shot by pointing to the grandstands and swinging for the fences after his victory burnout.
Though that claim was spoken only through the 140-character platform of Twitter, Hamlin never shied away from his brash statement the entire weekend in New Hampshire. After coming just shy of claiming the Coors Light Pole Award in qualifying this weekend, he said the pressure around his approach to race day doesn't change because of his remarks.
"The focus is the same. I don't do anything differently. You just have to perform," Hamlin said. "I knew, even going into this weekend I knew we were going to be really good contenders and be in the mix anyway. I feel like after running a couple laps of practice, I felt like this was a car that was capable of winning. I think really this year with tire management being more of a factor than it's ever been, it kind of lends itself to my driving style even more. For that reason I think we'll be tough on Sunday."
Because of NASCAR's shift in eligibility for the Chase, Hamlin has an opportunity to be tough in the season-long title fight as well. In previous formats, missing just one race could have spelled doom for championship hopes. Now with a regular-season victory virtually assuring a driver of a berth in the newly expanded Chase field, Hamlin has more than a puncher's chance of working his way into the playoffs -- a fate he could clinch Sunday if he backs up his prediction.
"It's hard to say you can't be part of the championship picture because of something that's relatively out of your control -- your health," Hamlin said. "In other sporting events you can miss events and be fine and it won't affect what you've got going on as far as the championship is concerned. I think it was time to update our sport in the direction that it's in now where we're not all just going on vacation, you're not allowed to do that.
"When something out of the blue, (NASCAR President) Mike Helton explained it to me greatly right as soon as we got out of that office -- this is why we built this system in place is for things like this, your season's not over. He says, 'Go win next weekend, everything is going to be fine.' So we'll try to do our best to do that."