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Hamlin looks to finish what he started in 2010

September 09, 2012, David Caraviello,

RICHMOND, Va. -- No. 1 seed says experience of losing title will make him more relaxed this time

Saturday night, it felt a little like 2010 again for Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver surely hopes he doesn't have that same feeling at the end of the season.

Hamlin didn't win the Sprint Cup regular-season finale at Richmond International Raceway, but his series lead in victories survived intact, and the driver of the No. 11 Toyota heads into the Chase as the playoff's top overall seed. It's a position he last occupied two years ago, when he held the lead through four weeks of NASCAR's postseason but ultimately let the championship slip away to Jimmie Johnson in the closing race.

Hamlin's Cup career


Then, Hamlin won at Richmond to take a 10-point lead over Johnson into the Chase. Saturday, despite leading a race-high 202 laps, he finished 18th on his hometown track and will take a three-point advantage over Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski into next Sunday's playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

"What took us out of the championship in 2010 really were a lot of different circumstances," Hamlin said. "I won't treat it any differently about the way I drive, things like that. I think I'll be a little bit more aggressive on restarts and not give up those one or two points when they really, really count. That will change, but for the most part, I think I'll just be a lot more relaxed this time around. Obviously our stuff is really good right now, as good as it was in 2010. What do you got to lose? We've never won a championship. We're going out there trying to win our first. You know, I'm going to race week to week, not think about a championship until I get to Homestead."

Hamlin seized the series lead in victories, and by extension the top Chase seed, thanks in large part to consecutive wins at Bristol and Atlanta. It's the seventh straight Chase appearance for Hamlin, who has made the playoff every full season he's been in NASCAR's top level and nearly won the title in 2010. That effort unraveled in the season's penultimate week after a pit call at Phoenix. His crew chief from that year has moved on and been replaced by Darain Grubb, who won last year's title with Tony Stewart.

"I wish it just could be experience beats all and that's how you win a championship," Hamlin said. "But nowadays it's about having an awesome pit crew, a guy on the box that makes great calls and fast cars. Other than that, the driver's got to stay focused and obviously give good feedback. But, you know, yeah, I mean, there's lessons learned along the way. You know, this is our seventh straight year. There's bits and pieces I've learned to each and every Chase that you apply to every year that's after that. So I'll learn the lessons from previous years and apply them."

The only Gibbs driver to make this season's Chase, Hamlin won't have a teammate to lean on. Joey Logano needed to win the Richmond race and get help in order to qualify, but he wound up 30th. Kyle Busch lost out on the second and final wild-card spot by three points to Jeff Gordon. Hamlin doesn't think his status as JGR's lone championship contender will prove a hindrance.

"The only thing really it can do is kind of put you higher in the pecking order," he said, "... When the fab shop builds an awesome car or something like that, it will go to you. But other than that, I don't think it will change a whole lot. You know, maybe those guys start working in a different direction for next year and they hit on something and we can use it toward the end of the Chase. But other than that, it's not going to change too much."

He certainly has fast cars, as his efforts in recent years have shown. Even Saturday night, his car was strong enough to dominate the race at times before circumstances, weather and pit strategies altered the complexion of the event. Hamlin also thinks he's matured mentally from two years ago and is less likely to be beaten down by adversity. Two years ago after the pit call mistake at Phoenix, he fell into a funk that helped Johnson seize the title. Earlier this year after a pit miscommunication at New Hampshire placed him at the rear of the field, he rallied and nearly won the race.

As much as his victories and his fast race cars, those are the experiences Hamlin will lean on as he begins his quest to finish the job he started in 2010.

"The biggest lesson I would just say is, I can only worry about what I can control," he said. "I mean, I'm pretty sure years ago ... I would have been on the radio just about every lap wondering [Saturday], 'What in the hell are we doing? What's going on with the strategy?' But, you know, I just do what I'm told. ... I think I handle things a lot better, the adversity that we have faced. New Hampshire, when we had a major miscommunication and went to the back, you know, normally I think I just would have been chewing the wheel off. I think I handled it better, and we actually made a decent run at getting that win. You know, I think it's adversity I've gotten better at overcoming."