You couldn’t exactly call Denny Hamlin the typical kid growing up in Chesterfield County.
By the age of seven he won his first go cart race, and by 15 he was winning races at Southside Speedway while a student at Manchester High School. He continued up the ladder in the late model stock car division before getting his big break in 2004 when he signed with Joe Gibbs racing.
The Gibbs-Hamlin relationship has been a winning one, with Hamlin now perceived by many to be among the top five drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
In fact, Hamlin is expected to challenge Jimmy Johnson for the series championship for the second consecutive time.
Hamlin led Johnson by 15 points going into the final race at Homestead last fall, but damage from an early race spin led him to a 14th place finish. Johnson, who wound up second, still accumulated enough points to claim his fifth straight Cup championship.
The 2011 season opens Sunday with NASCAR’s own version of the Super Bowl. It’s also known as the “Great American Race”, and Hamlin has already served notice that he’ll be ready.
In Saturday night’s Bud Shootout, a 75-lap, no points battle, Hamlin was hooked-up with Ryan Newman on the final lap, leading Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray who were also driving in tandem.
Just yards from the finish line, Hamlin made his move to pass Newman, but slid below the yellow line, thus bringing about a penalty and allowing Busch to squeeze out the win.
NASCAR has been trying its best to have exciting races on its two super speedways since introducing restrictor plates in 1988 to control speed at Daytona and Talladega.
In this year’s shootout, just about all of the 24 drivers strategized that cars ran best in packs of two. But speeds surpassed 200 mph, and NASCAR has decided a few changes are necessary. The teams will decrease the front grill opening and install a pressure relief valve inside the cooling system. Bump-drafting for long periods of time will then cause the cars to overheat.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon have qualified one-two for the Daytona 500. The remaining positions will be determined during the two Gatorade Dual 150-mile races Thursday.
Hamlin, who has 12 victories in the least two seasons, would certainly like to start 2011 with his first Daytona 500 win.
Speaking of firsts, should Hamlin eventually win the Cup title it would also be a first for Richmond. It may be hard to believe, but a driver from Richmond has never won a Sprint Cup Championship.
Sunday’s 53rd running of the Daytona 500 begins at 1:00 pm et and will be televised by FOX.