11 ways Ham­lin can win Cup crown

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Jeff Gluck @jef­f_gluck USA TO­DAY Sports

Denny Ham­lin, driver of the No. 11 car, is chas­ing his first cham­pi­onship in his 11th sea­son.

USA TO­DAY Sports tagged along to Fort Bragg, N.C., where the Joe Gibbs Rac­ing driver was un­veil­ing a Sport Clips paint scheme for the Bo­jan­gles’ South­ern 500. We dis­cov­ered 11 ways he could win the Sprint Cup ti­tle:

1. Be a bet­ter driver than

nav­i­ga­tor: Ham­lin was run­ning late; he was sup­posed to be at Fort Bragg ’s Air­borne and Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Mu­seum for an au­to­graph ses­sion and Sport Clips mil­i­tary char­ity check pre­sen­ta­tion 10 min­utes ear­lier.

The driver was in the pas­sen­ger seat of a black SUV, op­er­at­ing the GPS on his phone. JGR ac­count man­ager Brit­tany Ed­wards was driv­ing, and she trusted Ham­lin to get the car­load of pas­sen­gers from the air­port to the mu­seum. That was a mis­take. As the SUV ap­proached 100 N. Bragg Blvd., Ham­lin looked up.

“This is our ad­dress,” he said. But aside from a liquor store and aban­doned eatery, there wasn’t any­thing there. Ed­wards wasn’t happy. What hap­pened? She told Ham­lin to type in “100 Bragg Blvd.” He did, but the mu­seum is at 100 S. Bragg Blvd.

“I had to choose be­tween north and south, so I chose north,” he said with a shrug. “Denny, you’re fired,” Ed­wards said. “Wouldn’t be the first time,” Ham­lin replied.

The SUV fi­nally rolled up to the mu­seum 30 min­utes late, and Ham­lin was greeted by a line of peo­ple pa­tiently wait­ing for his au­to­graph.

“Re­mem­ber Rule No. 1: This was all your fault,” he said to Ed­wards. “I told you that was the wrong way.” 2. Con­tinue to qual­ify well: Ham­lin quizzed a re­porter on the cov­er­age his team has re­ceived for its qual­i­fy­ing this sea­son. “How come there’s been no talk about our qual­i­fy­ing av­er­age?” he said. “We’re the best qual­i­fy­ing car in the last 30 years!”

En­ter­ing the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Ham­lin’s av­er­age start­ing spot is 5.9, the best since Jeff Gor­don’s 5.0 av­er­age in 1995. Ham­lin hasn’t started worse than 12th and has missed the fi­nal round of qual­i­fy­ing once — at At­lanta Mo­tor Speed­way, when he qual­i­fied 13th but was moved up a spot when Kyle Busch failed postqual­i­fy­ing in­spec­tion.

3. Con­tinue to show he can

win at any track: Ham­lin checked two items off his rac­ing bucket list this year. He won the Day­tona 500 and fi­nally won a road-course race in Au­gust at Watkins Glen In­ter­na­tional.

He used to say the Chase for­mat ben­e­fited him be­cause the tracks in the last 10 races stacked up well for his strengths. But now, he said, he can win any­where.

When a re­porter noted Ham­lin had won on all four types of NASCAR tracks — su­per­speed­ways, short tracks, in­ter­me­di­ates and road cour­ses — he shook his head.

“No, there’s more than that,” he said, rat­tling off more spe­cific de­scrip­tions such as speed­way banked, in­ter­me­di­ate flat and short banked. “Only four other driv­ers have done that: Kevin (Har­vick), Kyle, Tony (Ste­wart) and Jim­mie (John­son).” 4. Drive like he’s rac­ing for a new con­tract — which he is: Ham­lin says his cur­rent agree­ment goes through next year, echo­ing what team owner Joe Gibbs said in Au­gust. Just like a base­ball player whose stats mat­ter more in a con­tract year, Ham­lin knows he needs to keep rac­ing at a high level.

“I’ve been there a very long time, and it’s ide­ally where I’d like to end my ca­reer,” he said. “Some of the big­gest names in our sport have changed teams. But my vi­sion is the same as JGR’s, I’m in a great sit­u­a­tion where my spon­sor (FedEx) is awe­some, they’ve been great to me, and I feel like I’ve done a good job for them.”

5. Stay healthy: Ham­lin is 35, but his back some­times feels like it’s twice his age. Even be­fore break­ing his back in a 2013 crash at Auto Club Speed­way, he had suf­fered through a bulging disk in 2012. He has had other back prob­lems on and off since then; in Au­gust, Ham­lin won the Watkins Glen race in spite of in­tense back spasms.

“I know my back well enough,” he said. “A lot of peo­ple have back is­sues, but they have nerve is­sues. I have zero nerve is­sues. It’s all mus­cu­lar. That can be fixed.” 6. Don’t speed on pit road: Ac­cord­ing to NBC Sports, Ham­lin led all driv­ers with eight pit road speed­ing penal­ties dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son. He can’t be do­ing that in the Chase, but that’s not news to him. Driv­ers don’t have speedome­ters, only lights on the dash­board that tell them when they’re close to the RPM limit.

“It’s a mis­take, but it’s not a dumb mis­take, if that makes sense,” Ham­lin said of the times he has been caught. “I’ve been try­ing to push, push, push to see what I can get away with. It gives you that lit­tle bit of an edge if you can find it.”

7. Keep up with his team

mates: The JGR cars — which some peo­ple count as five, in­clud­ing al­liance mem­ber Martin Truex Jr. of Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing — have been the fastest all sea­son. They com­bined to win 13 of the 26 reg­u­lar-sea­son races. (Ham­lin won three.)

Non-Toy­ota fans have griped they have some sort of ad­van­tage. Ham­lin ar­gued it’s more about in­ter­nal competitio­n. “I’ve got three of the best driv­ers as team­mates,” he said of Carl Ed­wards, Busch and Matt Kenseth. “We just have a very com­pet­i­tive team­work thing go­ing. Lis­ten, none of us want to be last to each other. And then you throw Martin in there this year, and it’s been great. We’re con­stantly fight­ing to be faster and faster.”

Ham­lin thinks one of them will win the cham­pi­onship, which would make it two in a row for Toy­ota af­ter Busch won the man­u­fac­turer’s first ti­tle last year.

“Would I be sur­prised if we didn’t win?” he said. “Yeah, sim­ply be­cause of our odds. That’s five of prob­a­bly the fastest seven or eight cars on any given week. So the odds are it’s a Gibbs car. But trust me, I don’t take any­thing for granted any­more.”

8. Don’t take any­thing for

granted: Last year, Ham­lin showed up to the Round 2 elim­i­na­tion race at Tal­ladega Su­per­speed­way as the top-ranked driver who had not won a race. His odds to ad­vance, he fig­ured, were very good.

But the es­cape hatch on his car started pop­ping open early in the race, and the team’s ef­forts to fix it with tape didn’t work. He ul­ti­mately got caught in a crash, fin­ished 37th and got elim­i­nated.

“I would have fig­ured we were just go­ing to ride around there and move on,” Ham­lin said, sigh­ing at the mem­ory. “I can’t tell you how many weird me­chan­i­cal things have hap­pened dur­ing my ca­reer. You just never know.”

9. Stay bal­anced: Plenty of driv­ers eat, sleep and breathe rac­ing. Ham­lin has tried that, and it doesn’t work for him.

Re­mem­ber the race at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way in 2010, when he went in with the lead and coughed it up to Jim­mie John­son af­ter let­ting the stress get to him? Ham­lin has fig­ured out he per­forms bet­ter when he’s hav­ing fun.

Some of his fa­vorite pas­sions in­clude play­ing golf (he has or­ga­nized a “tour” of friends called the Golf Guys Tour, which has its own so­cial me­dia ac­count) and keep­ing up with his 3-year-old daugh­ter, Tay­lor.

Tay­lor is wide open and con­stantly ea­ger to in­ter­act with strangers, which is the op­po­site of her in­tro­vert dad. But he’s usu­ally grin­ning at Tay­lor’s an­tics when she’s bounc­ing around.

10. Main­tain pace: Ham­lin rolls into the Chase click­ing per­fectly with first-year crew chief Mike Wheeler. Af­ter win­ning at Richmond In­ter­na­tional Race­way last week, Ham­lin has a new ca­reer high with eight con­sec­u­tive top-10 fin­ishes.

The pair have come a long way since the sum­mer, when Ham­lin said they were strug­gling to find a setup that worked.

“I know this is what a rookie would say, but now that me and Wheels are go­ing back to these tracks for a se­cond time, we’re start­ing to get a data­base and fine-tune these set­ups,” he said. “The re­sults speak for them­selves. Over the last cou­ple months, we’ve been pretty good.”

11. Win at Homestead: Ham­lin prob­a­bly can’t win the ti­tle if he doesn’t win the sea­son fi­nale. In the first two years of the cur­rent Chase for­mat, the Cup cham­pion won the race.

But he has fond feel­ings to­ward the track, even af­ter what hap­pened in 2010. Ham­lin has two Homestead vic­to­ries and a 10.7 av­er­age fin­ish and started from the pole there last year.

“I have a lot of con­fi­dence go­ing to Homestead, and thank God we won there in 2013 to keep the win-every-year streak alive,” he said. “I know I can do it again.”


Denny Ham­lin has thrice fin­ished in the top three in points.

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