Sunday, September 17, 2006
Updated: September 18, 3:57 PM ET
It's been a pie-in-the-sky kind of year for Hamlin
By Paul Grant
LOUDON, N.H. -- The best way to get to know rookie Denny Hamlin is to ask him a question -- and let the fun begin.
Samples from his race weekend press conferences:
• On his fanatical mother, who crosses her fingers for her son -- and keeps them crossed for an entire race day: "She's a racing mom. You hear about soccer moms, well, she's a racing mom. She has it in the worst way. She's a person whose TiVo is slammed full of anything that says NASCAR, hoping that she hears my name once or twice. She's just a nut. She wakes up in the morning and she crosses her fingers, and she's learned to eat that way and everything throughout the entire race day. And it's Busch and Cup; she's not prejudiced. She's got it real bad. I guess she loves her boy."
• On hanging around with the other Chase drivers last week in New York: "It was a good opportunity for all of us to talk to each other and kind of build a relationship. To me I felt like, of course, the odd man out. Everyone is talking about these old stories from racing and that, and I'm think 'Gosh, I was still in kindergarten when they were doing that.'
And then Jeff [Gordon] takes us out on the town afterwards. We get to the velvet rope, and I'm waiting on them to close the rope right before I get in."
• On giving different answers to the same questions: "Sometimes you feel like a broken record. You try to give somebody else maybe a different quote or something but you can't do it. I'm not that innovative."
Chase tweaks rumored for 2008 include more points for wins and the granting of a wild card to a team outside the top 10, perhaps based on wins.
Veteran driver Joe Nemechek had an interesting suggestion -- when pressed -- to consider.
"I think it would make it really interesting if they graded the top 10 guys on their own top 10 grade system -- 10 for winning, you finish last out of those 10, you get one point -- within each race," he told ESPN.com. "Then it gets back to consistency."
Regardless of how it plays out, someone will have a better idea.
"As long as there's rules, there's going to be better ways of doing this," Nemechek said. "We'll all have our opinions."
No Junior envy
Martin Truex Jr. was expected to be a contender for rookie of the year, if not to make the Chase. But it didn't exactly turn out that way -- Truex has struggled much of the season, failing to make the Chase and is a distant fifth in rookie standings.
"We had really high hopes and it's been a really tough season, to be honest with you," Truex told ESPN.com. "We've had some fun at times, we've had a lot of hard times. It doesn't seem like we can put it all together.
Bottom line is, we're a rookie team, the whole bunch of us. We haven't made that many mistakes, it just seems like whenever things are going right, the bottom falls out. We just need a bit of a luck-changer. Our cars have been good and getting better. That's the thing that's cool is that we've got a lot to build on. We just need to gain some consistency."
Some credit the resurgence of DEI teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Truex's presence, as the two made for fast friends off the track.
"I don't know that I've had that much to do with it," Truex said. "They've got a great team over there, they've helped us a tremendous amount, to be honest with you. I can't say we've helped as much as they have [us]. I'd like to be able to help as much as we can, and hopefully through these next 10 we'll be able to get some info over there."
For his part, the other Junior on the DEI team said he's motivated this year.
"I'm as hungry as I need to be," Earnhardt said. "I'm hungry. I'm going to give it everything I've got. And I don't get out of bed for much."
Kyle's got lofty goals
As you might expect, Chaser Kyle Busch isn't aiming for second. He wants to win the whole darn thing, even though, as he noted, only Dale Earnhardt has won the championship a year after winning Rookie of the Year.
"We're going to go out there and try to tie that record as well as go out there and try to beat Jeff Gordon's youngest-champion record," Busch, 21, told reporters in a scrum behind his hauler. "That's what our goals are this season.
Rick [Hendrick] wants to go to New York, but he doesn't want to go to New York and not sit at the head table."
Getting as close as he has to sitting at the big table at the postseason awards banquet has been an evolution toward maturity for Busch.
"I'm just trying to grow up a little bit more and try to realize life for more of its experiences than just trying to set new records and everything else," he said. "That's probably what I was doing in the beginning years. Last year, at the beginning of the year, I was out there driving too hard over my head to lead laps and win races and set records and this and that and everything else. But you settle down and try to be your own driver and be your own person and run your own race."
Paul Grant is a senior coordinator at ESPN.com.