Denny Hamlin putting disappointment aside to salvage NASCAR season

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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Forgive Denny Hamlin if he's a bit frustrated these days.
He thought he had a chance this year to win his first NASCAR championship. Instead, he's facing five final weeks of simply trying to salvage his season.
Back-to-back bad weeks have taken Hamlin out of contention in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He's currently 11th in the standings, 372 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, and his ranking hardly reflects how well he's been running.
"If they gave points for us running up front, we'd maybe have a shot at this championship," Hamlin said. "But, unfortunately, they don't. It's only on finishing position. That's bitten us right at the very end."
Through the first five Chase races, Hamlin only had one bad run, a 22nd at Dover. But he rebounded the next week at Kansas to close the gap on the points leaders and head into California with a chance to climb back into title contention.
Instead, driver error while leading late led to a race-ending crash and a 37th-place finish. If his championship hopes didn't end that day, they certainly did Saturday night at Charlotte when his engine failed after leading 54 laps. He finished 42nd.
"It is disappointing because you look at the stat sheet - it looks terrible when you finish 11th or 12th, when you've been the second-, third-, fourth-best car pretty much all year long," Hamlin said.
He's not been the best, but Hamlin has been very good this season and thought he had a real chance at the Sprint Cup title after a long overdue win at Richmond in the final race before the Chase. The momentum and confidence was enough to convince the Joe Gibbs Racing team that they could keep pace with Johnson and the rest of Hendrick Motorsports this season.
For it to be over at the midpoint of the Chase is something Hamlin is going to carry with him long into the off-season.
"I'm going to look back on it, and obviously be very disappointed," he said. "We came into the Chase with so much momentum, and have performed extremely well on the race track. Just a couple of mistakes take you out of it. That's what's going to be disappointing to me."
Particularly since Hamlin has made significant strides this season in making the personal adjustments needed to become a title contender. He vowed in January to be more of a team leader and fill the void left by two-time champion Tony Stewart, and he succeeded in some respects, becoming the only JGR driver to make the Chase.
He knocked his home track of Richmond, which had tormented him since his 2006 rookie season, off his to-do list and he's done a decent job of handling adversity. Previously regarded as moody and a bit reserved, Hamlin has also opened up this year and given outsiders a chance to see a different side of him - namely, his personality.
And there have been lessons along the way, as well.
He got a first-hand tutorial from Johnson at Martinsville in March on how the three-time defending champion will race for wins. As the two battled for the lead with 16 laps left, contact sent Hamlin drifting high and Johnson scooted past for his fifth Martinsville win in the last six races.
Hamlin remained positive despite the disappointing second-place finish, but vowed he'd use the same move on Johnson if given the chance going forward.
He hasn't backed off that claim as they return to the Virginia short track this weekend.
"If I'm in the same situation, I definitely will have that in the back of my mind and probably will do the same to him," Hamlin said. "I'm not going to say that I owe him one or anything like that, but I'm going to race hard to try to get a win, especially in the situation that I'm at right now.
"I can afford to be a little bit more aggressive and just do everything I can."
That might be good for Hamlin, who could sometimes use a little more killer-instinct.
Still, don't expect to see a total transformation from Hamlin, who is still very aware of the big picture. He's determined to win a championship someday, and will likely take his experiences from this season - probably the best chance he's had in four Chase appearances to actually contend - into next season.
Hamlin insisted he won't cross any lines that would jeopardize his goals.
"There is too much riding on the line to show too much emotion," he said. "You have, obviously, a lot of big-time sponsors in this thing that put your cars on the race track and put you in the seat, and they don't want their company looking bad in a negative way.
"There is too much riding on it to just, you know, completely show your rear end because something bad happens that weekend."

Organizations: NASCAR, Joe Gibbs Racing

Geographic location: California, Kansas, Virginia

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