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.

"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.

"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.

"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.

"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.

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."

Big Picture
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.

"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."

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.

"That was just something you're not supposed to be able to do," Gibbs says with a laugh. "I know that from experience because I've raced there before. I knew Denny was special after that, so we signed him to run one of our Busch Series cars for the full '05 season."

As they say, the rest is history-or at least history in the making as Hamlin heads into a bright future.-Jason Mitchell

BUSCH RECORDS
Here’s a look at the Busch Series records for this season’s Nextel Cup rookies. The stats are through the Pepsi 300 of Nashville Superspeedway, the eighth race of the ’06 Busch Series season.
DRIVER STARTS WINS TOP 5s TOP 10s POLES
Clint Bowyer 59 2 18 32 3
Denny Hamlin 43 1 3 18 2
Martin Truex Jr. 90 12 34 51 10
Brent Sherman 27 0 0 1 0
Reed Sorenson 47 2 13 24 2
David Stremme 87 0 12 30 1
J.J. Yeley 59 0 7 22 1
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