Hamlin pulled off another career first in March when he scored his first Busch Series victory in his 39th start-on a road course, of all places-in the Telcel Motorola Mexico 200 at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez track in Mexico City.
Hamlin is one of a handful of drivers with plans to compete in all the Nextel Cup and Busch Series races this year in what has shaped up as quite a challenging effort both physically and logistically. He feels that double duty will only help him get better, especially in his first full season at the Cup level.
"We went into the season with high expectations even though we all knew how competitive both divisions are, and we have to be realistic," Hamlin says. "These teams can get it done, and I'm committed and dedicated to running both divisions this year. It's going to be tough as far as running both schedules is concerned, but hopefully the extra track time is going to be a big help to us. If we can just be consistent, I don't see any reason why we can't be a part of the 'Chase for the Nextel Cup' as well as a contender for the Busch Series championship."
The win in the Bud Shootout brought immediate attention on the rookie driver. Kevin Thorn
Hamlin has set lofty yet obtainable goals for what he hopes to accomplish this season in both Nextel Cup and Busch Series competition, with the focus on gaining experience and getting better. His main goal in the Busch Series is to win the championship, while the Nextel Cup focus is on earning Rookie of the Year.
"To win the Busch Series title would mean a lot," Hamlin says. "Martin Truex has won [that] championship two years in a row, and I kind of feel like we've been overlooked a little bit. We had good runs at times and didn't make a whole lot of noise, but we were steady. That's the same approach I've tried to use in Cup-trying to finish every single lap because finishing each race is the only way I'm going to get better. That's how you get the most experience, being out on the racetrack for 500 miles and learning every lap."
Many believe this year's Cup Series rookie class has the makings of one of the best battles in history, and Hamlin agrees. "With this rookie class," he says, "I honestly think it's going to take a Top-10 finish in the final Cup standings to become Rookie of the Year because the competition is so strong.
"I also want to win a [points-paying] race and just be as consistent as I can be. We don't think we have to win to be successful, but it would be a really nice bonus for us. I think we're going to be a force to be reckoned with. It's going to be tough, but we're all in this thing for the long haul, and I know this team will be with me even if there is a little bit of a learning curve to go through."
During those tough times, it should come as some consolation to Hamlin that all he has to do is walk in his office and look at the picture of him as a youngster with Gibbs to be reaffirmed he can work his way up. In fact, he's already arrived.
"I've been a Washington Redskins fan since I was a little kid," Hamlin says. "I've got a picture in my office of Joe Gibbs and me that was taken when I was 10 years old. Little did I know at the time I'd be driving for him now for a living. As they say, I guess the rest is history. I'm definitely living a dream. I wouldn't trade my job with anybody."
The photo of Hamlin and Gibbs is part of the lore surrounding the team's discovery of Hamlin. "My dad laughs about that all the time," says J.D. Gibbs, president of JGR. "The best part about it is his mom took and kept a picture of it. We took that picture and put it into our Christmas party video that we have for all the employees every year, and when everybody saw it they were just rolling around laughing. Denny's standing there beside Dad with this big hat on and a D.A.R.E. shirt. It was funny.