Denny Hamlin swings for the fence
LOUDON, N.H. -- The lesson for today, class: When Denny Hamlin makes a bold tweet, believe him. Count on it. It's money.
Hamlin tweeted he would win Sunday in New Hampshire. As it turns out, it was an understatement.
Hamlin didn't just win the Sylvania 300. He stomped on the field, ripped them to pieces, chewed them up and spit them out.
Then he climbed out of his No. 11 Toyota, stood at the finish line, pointed to the grandstand and took a giant left-handed swing -- the Babe Ruth of NASCAR. Denny called his shot.
As a follow-up, maybe when the season finale is run in Miami, Hamlin can sit poolside on South Beach and guarantee a championship. Then he'll be the Joe Namath of NASCAR, as well.
"I don't want to sound too cocky," Hamlin said in Victory Lane on Sunday. "But I knew what we were capable of. I knew how good the car was and I have a really good feel for this racetrack."
Hamlin said Friday he wasn't guaranteeing anything when he tweeted last weekend after the Chase opener: "This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week."
The tweet came after Hamlin ran out of gas on the last lap at Chicagoland Speedway, falling to 16th when he was headed to a strong finish.
But Hamlin didn't back away entirely from his statement when asked about it Friday: "If I don't believe I can come to a track and win, I'm not gonna go."
Good thing he showed up. Hamlin had the fastest car all weekend in practice, but a crazy error in qualifying (improperly inflated tires) placed him 32nd on the starting grid.
Hamlin never flinched. He didn't complain. He got out of the car smiling. Before the start of Sunday's race, he had a pep talk with his crew to tell them he believed in them.
"I can't say enough about this whole FedEx team," Hamlin said. "It didn't hurt to have a little confidence. I know we made a couple mistakes recently, but I will back these guys up until the day I die. This is my team."
That is the difference between Hamlin today and the Hamlin of two years ago, the man who lost the Cup championship in the final race and sometimes lost his cool along the way.
"I've learned how to handle the bad days better," Hamlin said. "Knowing that I'm one of a handful of drivers with a great ride, an awesome sponsor and a championship team [Joe Gibbs Racing] backing me. I can handle the bad days when you put the grand scheme of things in the bigger picture."
Hamlin is a different driver now. He's 31, racing in his seventh Cup season. And he's a man who soon will be a father for the first time.
Crew chief Darian Grubb calls it Hamlin's "maturation process."
"The pep talk today wasn't needed," Grubb said. "But it was good to know the driver is behind us, and we're behind him."
Everyone was behind Hamlin on Sunday once he powered his way through the field to get to the front. Before the race, he said he wanted to get to the top 10 by Lap 100 of the 300-lap race. He was first on Lap 94.
The other contenders could only shake their heads and watch in amazement. Jimmie Johnson finished second and took over the points lead (one point ahead of Brad Keselowski), but Johnson knew he was no match for Hamlin on this day.
I know we made a couple mistakes recently, but I will back these guys up until the day I die. This is my team.” -- Denny Hamlin
"We had a great car, but we didn't have an amazing car like the 11 had," Johnson said. "We were the best in class."
By best in class, Johnson means the other 42 cars on the 1-mile New Hampshire oval.
"I don't think that thing [Hamlin's car] bobbled all day," said Jeff Gordon, who started on the pole and finished third. "I never saw him slide a tire."
Sunday was Hamlin's third victory in the past five races and his fifth of the season. It also was the 100th Cup victory for JGR, tying the organization with Richard Childress Racing on the all-time list.
But the star of the day was the guy who told Gibbs many years ago: "If you hire me, I will win a championship for you someday."
That was Hamlin, and he was 10 years old when he said it.
"He didn't tell me then I was going to have to pay him millions of dollars to do it," Gibbs said, laughing. "But we are proud to have him."
Gibbs believes Hamlin's reaction to the recent mistakes by the team shows why he can win the title this year.
"Nothing gets to him now," Gibbs said. "It means a lot to his team. It's a big deal. After the qualifying thing Friday, Denny went over to our guy [who inflates the tires]. He put him in a headlock. I thought he was going to punch him, but Denny was just laughing and joking. That kind of thing can make a difference down the road. I think those guys would die for him."
Hamlin is third in the Chase standings, only seven points behind Johnson. One note: The man who won the second race of the Chase in the past three seasons went on to win the title that year.
And the final race this year comes on Hamlin's 32nd birthday. Could there be a better day to tweet a bold prediction?