"My mom and I were talking about that the other day," Jones says. "It's really cool to see where Denny is now and know how he got there and where he came from. Back in the day, he was just a regular kid who loved racing. Now he's made it to the big time, and that's really an inspiration to me and a lot of other young guys out there."
Foot In The Door
As a result of his success, and through a set of circumstances that fell just right for Hamlin (see sidebar), Joe Gibbs Racing gave him a call and offered a driver development contract. In August 2004, Hamlin made his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series debut at Indianapolis Raceway Park, where he started Seventh and finished Tenth. Hamlin started his first superspeedway race in the ARCA Series Food World 300 at Talladega Superspeedway that October and finished Third.
Continuing his rapid rise, Hamlin started his first NASCAR Busch Series race at Darlington Raceway in November and finished Eighth at the facility known as "The Track Too Tough to Tame" and "The Lady in Black."
Five days later, on November 18, 2004-Hamlin's 24th birthday-Gibbs Racing announced he would pilot the team's No. 20 Rockwell Automation Chevrolet for the entire '05 Busch Series season. Hamlin took full advantage of the chance his childhood hero had offered.
Being surrounded by one of the sport's top teams has helped boost Hamlin's inaugural Cup s
"I feel like I performed the way I needed to at the right time, that's for sure," Hamlin says. "It was critical for me to perform the way I did because I had all the right people helping me and watching to see how I was going to do. It got Joe Gibbs pumped up about me, and that meant the world to me to have an opportunity to race in the Busch Series, and we did pretty well there."
While Hamlin didn't win a Busch Series race last season, he did gain invaluable track time and experience en route to a Fifth-Place finish in the '05 standings.
"I was very happy about the season we put together last year," Hamlin says. "I can't begin to tell you how much experience as a driver I gained last season. We had a Top-10 car in every race last year, but things happen-like getting involved in somebody else's mistakes, or mechanical failure. We had a good year, and it really set the bar as to how we were going to run this year."
Reaping The RewardsHamlin was concentrating on his Busch Series effort last fall when he was needed to fill the driver seat of the No. 11 Nexel Cup Chevrolet following the release of driver Jason Leffler. The Joe Gibbs-owned team had struggled to even qualify for races.
"At my first race last year, we had a three-point cushion over 36th in the points, which is the spot needed to guarantee we got a provisional," Hamlin says. "So they flat-out told me that if we ever fall back a spot, then they would have to put Terry Labonte in the car because he had a past champion's provisional and they had to do that to keep the sponsors happy. Luckily, I was able to gain spots instead of lose them, and I think that was a big boost for our team heading into this season. I far exceeded my personal expectations in the Nextel Cup Series last season."
Hamlin gave the team a much needed morale boost last November when he won the pole position at Phoenix International Raceway in only his sixth career Cup start, which qualified the rookie driver for this year's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, kicking off Speedweeks and the '06 race season. His victory in that race is now well documented, but Hamlin remembers the only way he could get into the Daytona track two years ago was as a special guest of Dale Earnhardt Jr.