It's select company, but a fresh face may steal the NASCAR show

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor

FORT WORTH, Texas - It turns out that fresh-faced Denny Hamlin was destined to become a NASCAR phenom, even before he won his first racing event at age 7. Give all the credit/blame, Hamlin said, to his dad and mom.
"He's probably the worst, most impatient person I've ever met," Hamlin said of his father, Dennis. "I can get that same way. I don't want to have to wait to be successful. I want to do things right away."
From his mom, Mary Lou, Hamlin said he inherited his driving style. "She is wide open on the highway," Hamlin said. "I mean, she is on the gas or on the brake constantly. It almost makes me (car sick), she drives so fast sometimes. Between those two, they definitely helped me out with the genes."
Genetic engineering remains one of the few items not covered by the current NASCAR rule book. So, 18 years after winning in a Junior Sportsman car, Hamlin has had plenty of experience being the first-to-do-this and the youngest-to-do-that.
For instance, Hamlin is one of five first-time qualifiers in the 10-driver field for NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup, the 10-race postseason that will crown the 2006 champion. Even more significant, Hamlin is the first Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate to qualify for the Chase, which now is in its third season.
"I really don't know what it's going to take to win the championship," Hamlin said humbly during a national teleconference previewing Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway. "But I think our team is very capable of doing it."
Can a rookie win a Cup championship? Conventional wisdom, and 58 years of NASCAR history dating from Red Byron's title in 1949, suggest otherwise. But if Hamlin, 25, were to win Sunday's race, who's to say he couldn't mimic Kurt Busch's long-shot drive to the title in 2004?
If Hamlin were to win Sunday's race, NASCAR Nation immediately has to look at him through a different set of wide eyes.
Consider that a year ago, Hamlin wasn't even the full-time driver of the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin made his series debut at Kansas Speedway during the 2005 Chase, starting seventh and finishing 32nd for a start-up team whose morale basically had bottomed out. Paired with veteran crew chief Mike Ford - previously fired as former Cup champion Dale Jarrett's chief at Robert Yates Racing - Hamlin posted his first Bud Pole and three top-10 finishes during the season's final seven races.
The same seven venues - including the second annual Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 5 - await this year's Chasers. And it would appear that many of the pieces are falling into place for this fresh-faced rookie.
"I haven't thought about the championship whatsoever," said Hamlin, whose 15th-place run at Richmond International Raceway placed him fifth among the 10 Chase qualifiers. "All I've really thought about is that I'm in good company with those nine drivers that I'm with."
This Chase lineup includes many of the usual suspects, most notably four-time series champion Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, another former Cup champion who will take a five-point lead over Jimmie Johnson into Race No. 1 at NHIS. But Kenseth, Johnson and veteran Mark Martin are the only repeat Chasers from 2005. Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualified in 2004 but missed the cut last year. That's half the Chase field.
As previously mentioned, the other five are Chase "rookies" - Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Kasey Kahne and Hamlin. Solid cases can be made for every Chase entrant. But who would have thought that Hamlin would start the season with a victory in the non-points Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway? Or that he would have swept both summertime races at Pocono Raceway? Or that crew chief Ford, who is 10 1/2 years older than Hamlin, would click with his protege all the way to the Chase?
Anybody out there believe a rookie can win the Cup championship? Well, you can start with Dennis and Mary Lou Hamlin.