NASCAR: Hamlin’s success anything but normal

Wasn’t sure about Denny Hamlin. Seemed to drive like some rich kid who’s been given a Porsche for his graduation. His eighth-grade graduation. Can’t tell if he’s cocky, arrogant, aloof or shy. How do you break through that veil of entitlement?

Or do you?

Or is he just … quiet? Maybe I’ve got him all wrong.

Maybe that’s what makes him good at what he does. He’s able to fly under the radar until he drops the bomb.

Two-thirds through his third full season and for the last 18 months, he has done nothing but driven like he belongs. He has four career victories, which is equal to what Elliott Sadler has in 10 seasons and Michael Waltrip in 23. When Hamlin reaches Victory Lane next, he will have as many trips as Jeremy Mayfield, but in about 10 seasons’ less time.

The point is, Hamlin isn’t just a guy, he’s a guy with a future. A bright future. A long, bright future at the top of the standings.

The cars matter in this sport, certainly, and nobody drives a dog to Victory Lane. So he’s in a good car every week. But so are Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart and none of them have won a race in 2008.

In a year that has been dominated by Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who was running fourth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship after Richmond?

One hint: He’s from a coal state.

Hamlin is from West Virginia, which doesn’t exactly inspire its residents to arrogance.

“I think I’m just a normal guy like anybody, like Greg (Biffle) or Matt (Kenseth),” Hamlin said after finishing third in the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and referencing drivers from Washington and Wisconsin.

Normal guy? Maybe.

The fans “really don’t see everything,” he said, even though the sport today borders on overexposure and moves along at New Media speed that’s quicker than the pole-sitter at Atlanta.

“It’s a mixed bag … They see when you’re in a bad mood, they see when you’re in a good mood and they take what they want out of it,” he said. “I don’t think the average race fan sees everything that goes into this sport and all the frustration that you have at times. It’s tough to say what the fans think of me.”

I know what some fans think of him. On his way to the motor coach after the night race at Fontana, he stopped at a gate where a dozen kids were gathered. He signed autographs until every one of them was satisfied. “That’s class,” one of the parents said, probably not even aware that, on Hamlin’s East Coast biological clock, it was midnight.

That’s not all. While this was going on, Hamlin’s representative and a reporter were in disagreement over the line of post-race questioning. Instead of asking Hamlin about the race or the car or tire pressures, which is “protocol,” the questions had more to do about Hamlin’s insight into how he is perceived by fans and drivers. “Blindsided,” was the description used by the representative, and Hamlin was the sandwich between this conversation before arriving at the kids.

If it was an issue, Hamlin didn’t have to answer the questions, the reporter said across Hamlin’s stride: “He’s a big boy.” In perhaps an unfair moment to the driver, Hamlin was asked directly if he objected. He said no.

Hamlin answered the questions. Even stopped outside the coach to finish up.

“I think I’m respected by the other drivers,” Hamlin said. “I’ve never had a guy run into me or wreck me or anything like that on purpose. I feel like I’ve earned the respect of the guys. For the 2 1/2 years I’ve been in it, I’m pretty happy.”

True, in a sport where the participants talk about respect and enact their own justice, Hamlin has mostly avoided serious dustups with the significant exception of that flare-up with Kyle Petty.

Maybe it’s a maturity issue. Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, 23, has had more success than Hamlin, 27, yet doesn’t appear to rank nearly as high on the Respect-O-Meter among his peers. Admired, yes. Respected, questionable.

“You learn to race guys late in the race,” Hamlin said. “Don’t race them hard [early]. That’s why we have as few DNFs in our career, patience. We didn’t exactly do a good job of that at the end of last year, but I was trying to make up for the points we were behind. I felt like we’ve done a good job of becoming a good part of this sport.”

He has certainly done that. But that’s not to say it has been easy. It hasn’t.

“There’s an intimidation factor, you just don’t always show it,” Hamlin said. “You‘ve got to do what you‘ve got to do, but you‘ve got to earn the respect of the veterans.

“That’s what I felt like for the first year-and-a-half of my career. After that, it’s racing them as hard as they race me.”

Not only has Hamlin acted like he belonged, as he did that first year when he hid his intimidation, but he also performed like he belonged.

And in a back lot, with a reporter getting his first real dose of Hamlin and the rising star unencumbered by video cameras, when he could have made a beeline for the exit without putting on airs for anyone, he proved he belonged.

Fans don’t see everything, he may have said.

They should.

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