Denny Hamlin doesn't want to be on the outside looking in when NASCAR hosts the top 10 Sprint Cup drivers in New York at season's end.
With the Chase now featuring 12 drivers, the decision was made last year that only the top 10 would be honored at the Waldorf-Astoria. Besides the fact that going beyond 10 drivers would further stretch out the ceremony, NASCAR wanted the drivers to have a reason to fight for the 10th spot if they were already eliminated from championship contention over the final few races.
Hamlin entered the Chase figuring he had as good a chance at the championship as anyone, but it didn't work out that way. Besides getting into a wreck when racing with Kyle Petty's lapped car at Dover, Hamlin had just three top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase after posting 15 top-10s in the first 26 races.
Sixth in points during NASCAR's "regular season," he wound up 12th in the Chase -- and a mere spectator as the top 10 drivers were honored and got to thank their sponsors and crews on TV.
It's safe to say he's looking for better things this time around. Sure, Joe Gibbs Racing has made the switch to Toyota -- and added Kyle Busch to its stable in place of J.J. Yeley -- but he's not expecting the changes to do anything but bolster the operation.
"There's no doubt in my mind we're going to run better this year than what we did last year; myself, [Tony Stewart and Busch]," Hamlin said. "I definitely feel like we're going to have a lot of wins, regardless of what Hendrick [Motorsports, which won 18 of 36 races a year ago] does. We feel like we're making a huge progression [from last year] and hopefully it shows up on the racetrack."
Hamlin's cars were sound last year, when he posted a win, 12 top-5s and 18 top-10s. Still, better cars may make it easier for the 27-year-old to keep under control when the stakes are highest.
A lack of patience hurt Hamlin in the Chase last year, something the driver and Mike Ford, his veteran crew chief, quickly admit. It's a tendency frequently found with young drivers who are often more apt to try to wring more out of the car than it's capable of delivering some weekends.
"We shouldn't have been left out in that whole New York thing last year. That kind of rested on my shoulders and a little bit within the team," Hamlin said. "But mostly it was the driver kind of making those mistakes and I'm aware of that and take responsibility for it. Hopefully I'm going to make it up to them in the years to come."
Hamlin, though, thinks he's progressing on schedule and knows where he can improve, starting with Saturday's Budweiser Shootout.
"I definitely know that I have a lot to learn and a lot of room to be better," Hamlin said. "There's some certain things within the racing, I know when I'm in that situation if I was a veteran I probably could have gotten through [it] a little better. I'm happy with where I started and I'm happy with where I'm at now, but I think it's going to be another two to three years before I've really reached the peak where I've pretty much learned [all there is to learn]."
Ford says he's seen the growth in Hamlin, who is entering his third full season at the Cup level. Making the Chase as a rookie, Ford saw a driver who was "almost timid and very aware not to make mistakes the whole season."
That year, the goal was to earn the respect of his fellow competitors, showing them that he'd race them clean. Last year, Ford saw a driver willing to push the limits. At times, Ford knows his driver may have gone a bit too far -- but that's all the point of the maturation process.
"I think we're zoning in on how aggressive you can be, when to be aggressive and when to be patient," Ford said. "I think that's the one thing at the end of [last] season that was very difficult. We felt like we had better equipment and a better opportunity than what we came home with at the end of the season.
We knew Hendrick had the dominant race cars and I was trying to make up for it on the racetrack and you just can't do that. You're not going to be successful.
-- Denny Hamlin
"We reflected back to the first season and that's a lot closer to where we need to be. So I think we've been to both extremes. The third season, if we shoot the gap and hit the middle, I think we'll be a much better combination."
Ford says a driver can only learn through experience and said he thinks part of the problems were that JGR's Chevrolets weren't as strong during the Chase portion of the schedule last year as they'd been during Hamlin's rookie season. That made it easy for the driver to try too hard in an attempt to get to the front.
"When you're a step behind, that's when you have to force things," Hamlin said, comparing it to a quarterback throwing interceptions while trailing late in a game and just trying to make something happen. "We were kind of in that situation and it snowballed and got worse and worse.
"We knew Hendrick had the dominant race cars and I was trying to make up for it on the racetrack and you just can't do that. You're not going to be successful."
That time for patience, though, might not actually start with the season-opening Shootout, a race Hamlin won as a rookie two years ago. While points are what matter during the regular season, and are magnified during the Chase, there's nothing but prize money and prestige on the line Saturday night.
"The shootout is a fun event and it's a race that we all want to win. It's unique because you aren't worrying about points or about how it's going to affect your season," Hamlin said. "You'll probably see guys try things in the Shootout that you won't see in the 500, but it's a short race and the format means that there is nothing to lose at the end. I think that's what the fans like about this race. We just get to go out there and race."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.