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Denny Hamlin savors chance to continue win streak

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013

This is where Denny Hamlin has been at his best.

It’s where he needs to be again.

Since Hamlin made his full-time debut in NASCAR’s top series in 2006 with Joe Gibbs Racing, he had never failed to qualify for the championship Chase.

He has never failed to win at least one race during a season.

The Chase became nearly impossible when Hamlin was forced to miss four races after breaking a vertebra in his back during a March 24 wreck in Fontana, Calif.

Winning, however, remained possible, even likely after Hamlin returned to his No.11 Toyotafor the March 5 race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

More than five months later, however, Hamlin still lacks a victory. Only four races remain in what easily has been the most trying season of his NASCAR career.

There remains a rather large bright spot – Sunday’s Goody’s 500 at Martinsville Speedway and Hamlin, 32, will start from the pole.

While the native of Chesterfield, Va., considers Richmond (Va.) International Raceway his “home” track, Martinsville is his best. He has four wins and 12 top-10 finishes in his 15 Cup starts.

Having missed the spring race at Martinsville because of his back injury, Sunday’s race is the only opportunity he has this season to showcase his best work.

“This season has been super tough on us and it will make you stronger in the end,” Hamlin said. “Obviously if we could get a win this weekend by no means will it fix everything or make us feel good about out year, but it will definitely give us something to smile about in the offseason.”

In his seven previous full-time seasons, Hamlin has never had less than 14 top-10 finishes. This year he has five, including one in his previous 18 races.

He has never had less than five top-five finishes in a season. He has three this year, his most recent coming May 26at Charlotte.

When it became clear Hamlin would not make the Chase, he and his team transitioned to spending much of their time working on helping teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth in their respective quests to win the series title.

“It’s been tough because what my fans see is the struggles, they see the blown engines and things like that we’ve had here recently, but those are all things that we signed up for we didn’t make the Chase,” he said.

“We decided it would be best for us to work on next year and focus on next year. Everything we’ve done since not making the Chase has been focused on running well next year.”

It’s a good strategy – one that could pay huge dividends and give him a leg up on his competitors next year.

But it hasn’t been easy for a driver accustomed to running up front, winning fairly regularly and often considered one to beat, particularly at places like Martinsville.

“We’ve definitely been sort of a nonfactor I guess you could say as far as race wins are concerned,” Hamlin said.

Kasey Kahne, one of Hamlin’s best friends among his fellow Cup series competitors, said he knows this season has been difficult for Hamlin.

“He’s a really competitive guy, whether it’s basketball or golf or racing and it has been difficult for him because of how well he has performed in the past,” Kahne said.

“I feel for him. I know it’s been a tough year. I’ve always thought of Denny as one of the guys to beat every weekend and it’s not been like that this year.”

Hamlin knows the feeling. He views Sunday’s race as the best opportunity to recapture some of the relevance he has been missing. He does not plan to squander it.

“It hurt to watch this race in the spring, but now it feels good to come back here and run some laps and feel as comfortable as ever,” Hamlin said.

“Our team has put a lot of emphasis on this race. We’ve won a race every year that I’ve been in this series and this will be our best shot to get that done.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.

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