"I'm kind of like a lot of other guys in racing who got started on go-karts when I was 7 years old and won a bunch of races," Hamlin says. "I actually won my first race, and that led to the next week and the week after that. That's what really got the ball rolling for me. We ended up winning a couple of Virginia state [karting] championships and 186 feature wins before I got into a stock car when I turned 16 years old.
"The cool part about that was I also was able to win my first stock car race at Langley Speedway (in Hampton, Virginia). I also set the track record in qualifying that same day. I won two track championships in stock cars at Langley and Southside Speedway (near Richmond) in my first year of racing."
Hamlin's Mini Stock title at Langley Speedway allowed him to become the youngest driver-at age 16-to become a NASCAR champion at the track. It was at that point Hamlin committed himself to the pursuit of a career in racing. It wasn't always easy, though, as his family-owned team eventually had to experience the hard times that have ended countless racing careers.
"After my first year racing stock cars, I knew what I wanted to do and that I might have a shot to make it," Hamlin says. "It was just a huge boost to have that much success so early in my career. We kept it as a family team until 2002 when I met a guy by the name of Jim Dean who brought me on board with his team. He overheard me saying my team didn't have enough money to keep our deal going. Jim told me that if I wasn't out there the next week and his team won the race, they wouldn't have felt like they beat the best.
Hamlin's emergence in the No. 11 has been one of the season's early surprises. Sam Sharpe
"He told me that night to call him on Tuesday and he would see what he could do to help me. Jim and his driver split ways on Monday and he told me he'd like for me to drive for him. The following weekend we won the pole, led every lap, and won the race. He asked if I'd be willing to drive for him the next season, and that's the season we won 25 out of 35 races. We competed at six or seven different tracks during the '03 season. It was just an incredible year."
Hamlin's success in 2003 was remarkable en route to winning the Late Model track championship at Southern National Raceway Park in Kenly, North Carolina. Out of the 35 races that season, he picked up 30 poles, posted 33 Top-5 finishes, and won races at five different tracks, including South Boston, Hickory, Southampton Motor Speedway, Southern National, and Coastal Plains.
Hamlin picked up right where he left off when the '04 Late Model Stock season by winning races at five different tracks, including South Boston, Motor Mile, Hickory, Greenville-Pickens, and Southampton.
Even with his phenomenal success, Hamlin remained humble and respected. Clay Jones, a 19-year-old driver from Goldsboro, North Carolina, got to know Hamlin from racing at Southern National Raceway.
"We were pretty good buddies at the racetrack," Jones says. "Denny would come over to where we were parked and we'd talk about how our cars were running and stuff like that. He'd give me a lot of helpful hints, which was awesome because he always ran so well. We'd talk every weekend. Denny's advice was a big help to me even though he was running a Late Model Stock car and I was running a little four-cylinder. He'd show me the line around the track as well as my driving style and how to work on the car. He really helped me a lot when it came to making changes and how the changes should affect the car."
Though they've lost touch over the past couple of years, Jones likes seeing one of his peers reach the top.