HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — In the sometimes bland NASCAR garage, at least one driver has dared to criticize the powerful, call out the untouchable, slap down the unbearable and catch the seemingly uncatchable.
Denny Hamlin might be NASCAR's next great hope. If he plays it right, he could be its next champion, too.
"I said it last year," Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending Sprint Cup champion, said before last weekend's All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "He's a threat. He has the team and the organization and the crew chief and everything around him to do it."
Johnson and Hamlin each has three victories, tied for the most in the series this year. Hamlin has won three of six going into tonight's Coca-Cola 600 at CMS and is sixth in points (Johnson is fourth).
"He's ahead of me in points by just a couple, so you've got to say he's got the upper hand," Hamlin said recently in the offices of his team, Joe Gibbs Racing. "But in the grand scheme of things, I think the gap has narrowed now. Now we'll see when it comes Chase time."
Confident? Yes. Cocky? Maybe that, too. Hamlin is an outspoken, occasionally brash and often entertaining change of pace for NASCAR. When he was unhappy with young Brad Keselowski last year, Hamlin vowed to deliberately wreck him in a Nationwide series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Then Hamlin did it.
And when teammate Kyle Busch threw a temper tantrum last week, blaming Hamlin for costing Busch a shot at victory in the All-Star Race, Hamlin coolly dismissed him, saying in part, "Each year I think Kyle's going to grow out of it, and he just doesn't."
Hamlin, 29, who was born in Brandon, has a camera-friendly smile, playboy reputation and party-boy image, injecting a youthful personality into NASCAR. He owns a nightclub in Charlotte, N.C., called Butter, is a buddy of Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain and exchanges text messages with Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Bobcats.
Hamlin seems determined never to be bored — or boring.
"I think that NASCAR almost likes it that I'm somewhat seen in a lot of different areas," he said, "because I think NASCAR drivers get the reputation of married homebodies that you never see. They just hide away until the race weekend. I will never be one of those guys who says, 'Man, I wish I would have lived up my 20s.' "
But he is careful not to oversell that image. Though his opulent house was featured on MTV's Cribs last year, Hamlin is leaning against doing a reality show on his life off the track.
Though still in pain after having surgery on a torn ACL early in the season, Hamlin earned his second victory of 2010 at Texas. He also won May 8 at Darlington, S.C., in yet another sign that JGR had caught up to Johnson and his powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team. Hamlin vowed last week that either he or Busch would capture the Coca-Cola 600 at a track where Johnson has won six times.
Typical Hamlin. Anything but bland.
Sprint Cup points
Through 12 of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.
Kevin Harvick 1,768—
Kyle Busch 1,699 69
Matt Kenseth 1,642 126
Jimmie Johnson 1,637 131
Denny Hamlin 1,618 150
Jeff Gordon 1,605 163
Greg Biffle 1,581 187
Jeff Burton 1,569 199
Kurt Busch 1,531 237
Carl Edwards 1,487 281
Mark Martin 1,475 293
Martin Truex 1,434 334