Denny Hamlin started Friday in a fairly relaxed mood, the stress he usually felt from racing at Richmond International Raceway lifted after last year's breakthrough win. Then his No. 11 Toyota slogged around the speedway, and Hamlin no longer seemed so at ease. "It's slow right now," Hamlin said after qualifying 30th for tonight's Sprint Cup race. "It's the only word I can really use for it." That's not a position Hamlin is used to at RIR, his home track.
He has been a contender every time he has raced at Richmond since his 2006 rookie season, but he never could find his way to Victory Lane despite very strong cars.
The desire to win in front of family and friends was nerve-racking, and Hamlin definitely felt the pressure.
"Every time I came here, I was very nervous," said Hamlin, who was born in Brandon but raised in Chesterfield, Va. "For practice, I was extremely nervous. Qualifying, extremely nervous. This time, for some reason, I'm just way more relaxed this weekend than what I've been here in the past."
He earned that with last September's victory, which gave Hamlin renewed confidence and a ton of momentum as he headed into the Sprint Cup's season-ending Chase for the Championship. Hamlin won two of the 10 Chase races and closed the season as the popular pick to dethrone four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson this year.
Though he started slowly this season, he picked up the pace considerably with two victories in the past four races. A fourth-place finish last weekend at Talladega continued his march through the standings, and Hamlin has jumped from 18th to ninth in just two races.
He has done it during the most physically challenging stretch of his career, too. Hamlin, 29, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee playing basketball during the offseason and planned to postpone surgery until after the year. But when his knee began to bother him, the surgery was moved up and Hamlin had the ligament repaired in early April, two days after his win at Martinsville.
He struggled in his first race after the surgery, finishing 30th on a long night at Phoenix in which he had Casey Mears on standby as a replacement driver but refused to get out of the car.
Hamlin bounced back a week later with a win at Texas, but was still dismayed by the lengthy recovery time. He still walks with a limp, but has been encouraged with the progress made this week in rehabilitation.
"I feel like day-to-day, I gained about 1 percent, or half a percent, since the surgery," he said. "But, for some reason, I'd say over the last four days, that number has been like 5 percent better. It's taken big leaps. I didn't think it would be this far into it that I would still feel the effects, but obviously I am."
But he's confident his knee is not affecting his on-track performance.
"It hampers everyday life and weekly life, but nothing here on the race track," he said.
Still, the 0.75-mile Richmond oval could present a problem for Hamlin, who will have to use more brake than he had to while racing at Texas and Talladega.
"This will be not as bad as Phoenix on it, but it will definitely be much harder than where we've been the last two or three weeks," he said. "I will be interested to see what kind of pressure I can put on the brake here at Richmond."
But that wasn't the problem Friday. His Joe Gibbs Racing entry just wasn't at its usual pace, and Hamlin couldn't figure out why.
"I'm just running as hard as the car will let me, and it just won't take any more speed," he said. "So, we've just got to figure that part out."