Three years ago, Denny Hamlin was a virtually unknown Late Model racer tearing up the short tracks across the Southeast. Now the Chesterfield, Virginia, native is one of the hottest commodities in NASCAR, gunning for NASCAR Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year.

"A couple of years ago, I was a racer from Virginia who, when people would hear my name would say, 'Denny, who?'" Hamlin says with a laugh.

He now needs no introduction to the racing world thanks to his meteoric rise through the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series, where he started racing-and winning-in 1997. He has more than 50 victories at that level.

To appreciate Hamlin's sudden rise, you have to understand that he's barely removed from the local bullrings of Virginia and the Carolinas. You also have to understand this is the same guy who, as a 10-year-old attending an autograph session, told his current team owner, Joe Gibbs, that he would drive his race cars one day. Gibbs likely shrugged it off, having heard comments like that many times during his career. But now Hamlin is indeed on the Gibbs payroll, driving the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet on the Nextel Cup circuit.

Living what he calls "a dream life" now, Hamlin pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent NASCAR history in February when he won the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway in only his eighth Cup start. As he took the checkered flag, he did so with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and defending series champion Tony Stewart in his rearview mirror.

While success in such a short time could lead Hamlin to be brash or arrogant, that doesn't appear to be the case. The soft-spoken racer says he will never forget his roots in the NASCAR Dodge Weekly Series.

"That was a huge break for me because it showed that talent still amounts to something," Hamlin says. "I didn't have money to bring to the table or that famous racing last name that gets you through the door. I didn't have anything like that. Yet I performed well at the right time, and that got me to where I am today. My story shows the system of working your way through the NASCAR feeder system still does work, not only for me but a lot of other guys as well.

"I'm glad to see a lot of these big NASCAR teams have started to look at guys at the local regional short tracks as a source for new talent. I don't think that was happening a few years ago, but that's changed now. I hope my success coming up through the NASCAR ranks from the ground up shows people it still can be done."

Learning The Ropes
Hamlin says his path in racing began the same as many other drivers, both those who made it and those who didn't.