"He did tell my dad that he would drive for him one day," J.D. adds with a laugh, "but he forgot to tell him the part about it costing him millions of dollars to hire him."
Making His Mark
Denny Hamlin went to a test session three years ago at Hickory (North Carolina) Motor Speedway to help set up a Late Model, and although he didn't know it at the time, he made an impression that secured a ride for him on NASCAR's top circuit for the '06 season.
As a young hotshot tearing up the local short tracks in the Southeast, Hamlin was asked by Joe Gibbs Racing to come to Hickory to help with a pair of Late Models that were going to be used in a driver search held by the JGR/Reggie White Diversity Program. To say Hamlin made a lasting impression would be an understatement, as he now drives full-time in both the Nextel Cup Series and the Busch Series for the Gibbs operation.
"Stuff happens fast in this business," says J.D. Gibbs, the president of Joe Gibbs Racing. "Denny Hamlin is wise and experienced beyond his age, and he really has a gift. He came along with a level of talent that you don't see that often. A lot of guys want to make it in racing, but you just don't see that spark so fast like we saw in Denny."
J.D. Gibbs (left) says it was quickly clear that Hamlin was gifted. Nigel Kinrade
Gibbs says he'll never forget the day he met Hamlin and the impression made by the young Virginia native.
"We were trying to get the diversity program started, so we called Denny to come to Hickory and help us out," Gibbs explains. "I got the chance to talk to him that day, and we went out to dinner that same night and learned a little more about him. A couple of our guys from our Busch Series program-Steve de Souza and Curtis Markham-told me I really needed to take a good look at Denny because he'd been turning in practice laps that were faster than the qualifying laps that the usual guys who raced at Hickory were running.
"That gave me a good chance to learn a little about him, so we decided we'd put him on a retainer deal if we could find something for him to do in either the Trucks or Busch. If something didn't work out, we couldn't say we didn't try."
In 2004, Hamlin signed a driver development contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.
"Denny started racing with us in the Craftsman Truck Series that year, and he knocked out Top 10s in equipment that really wasn't the best stuff because we were leasing it," Gibbs says. "Clearly he had a gift, so we took him to Darlington. I told myself and a couple of other guys that if he could finish in the Top 10 at Darlington, then we were going to put him in our Busch car for the next year."
Hamlin seized the opportunity, starting 23rd at Darlington Raceway and posting an Eighth-Place finish in his Busch Series debut at what is considered one of the toughest tracks in racing.