More mature Hamlin looking to use Pocono as '08 springboard

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mounted in the billiards and poker room in the basement of Denny Hamlin's palatial Lake Norman home is a 21-year-old soccer ball with his signature copied countless times in the white hexagons.

It looks out of place surrounded by all the racing paraphernalia that makes up 99 percent of the decor.

"I got it for Christmas when I was 6, and everyone would laugh and say, 'He never plays with the soccer ball. All he does is sign his name all over it,'" Hamlin recalled on Thursday. "Finally, somebody asked me why I did that.

"I said, 'One day, if I'm good enough to be a professional race car driver I'll need to have a good signature, so I'm practicing.'"

His mom saved the ball, which his Lake Norman roommates discovered and framed for a Christmas present with an inscription saying, "Congratulations. You made it."

Hamlin, 27, has indeed made it. That's why he was talking about the soccer ball that was part of Tuesday's filming of "MTV Cribs," a reality show that features the houses of celebrities.

Pocono Raceway, where the Sprint Cup Series is this weekend, had a starring role in the journey.

It was at Pocono -- on June 11, 2006 -- that the rookie Hamlin captured his first Cup victory. He started from the pole and was so dominant that a blown tire and spinout on Lap 51 didn't derail him even though the blowout left a big hole in the left rear fender.

He returned to the track on July 23 and became only the second rookie in Cup history to sweep both races at a track. Two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson swept Dover in 2002.

The wins propelled Hamlin to a third-place finish in the standings and made him the first rookie to make the championship chase.

"Every time I go there, I feel I can win," Hamlin said.

He should. In five career starts on this track buried in mountains famous for honeymooners, his worst finish is sixth -- in the first race last season. And that could have turned out differently had the race not been called early because of rain.

In his other two starts, he finished third both times.

"The first time Denny rolled in there and took his first lap, he said, 'Man, I love this place,'" said Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, who also had great success at Pocono with Bill Elliott and Dale Jarrett. "It just fits his driving style."

A lot of places fit Hamlin's driving style. Since breaking into the Cup series 99 races ago, he has 51 top-10s. That's only seven fewer than Johnson had after the same number of events, and it's nine more than Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch.

He's the only driver outside of Johnson and Matt Kenseth to make the Chase every opportunity he's had. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. can't say that.

Were it not for some misfortune this season, including last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he lost the lead and ultimately the race on the final pit stop because Reed Sorenson hit his left front tire as soon as the tire changer pulled it off, Hamlin might be challenging Busch for the points lead instead of sweating it out in eighth.

"Denny is so consistent and so smooth," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "He's the one guy you kind of look at who is always going to be running well at the end of the year. We still think that's where he's going to be.

"We've just had some oddball things happen that put you back."

Growing up
Hamlin obviously was disappointed as he stood on pit road with a third-place finish at Indianapolis while Johnson celebrated the win.

He knew that had it not been for the incident with Sorenson, which also happened on the pit stop before the last one, he might be the one kissing the famous yard of bricks at the start/finish line.

But Hamlin didn't go off on Sorenson or storm away without doing interviews, as some competitors do under those circumstances. He calmly talked about his day and all the frustration everyone faced having to make mandatory stops every 10 to 12 laps because of tire wear.

"I've definitely calmed down a whole bunch in that aspect," Hamlin said. "I mean, I still get hot at times. But it seems like I'm doing a better job of kind of containing it and keeping it to myself."

Good thing. Otherwise, this season would have driven him nuttier than a fisherman who just missed the "big one" thinking about all the ones that got away.

A stalled engine with the lead on a green-white-checkered restart cost him a win at Bristol Motor Speedway. A flat tire after leading a track-record 381 of a scheduled 400 laps at Richmond cost him another win.

But instead of climbing into that dark hole he would have escaped to a year ago and publicly criticizing his team, he remained surprisingly positive.

"If you let every situation dictate how you feel, then you're going to be a miserable person in this garage area," Ford said. "He's learned to put emotion aside and look at the nuts and bolts of where things are. That's helped a lot."

Soft-spoken Ford helped Hamlin get to that point. They had a long talk in the middle of last season about trying to find happiness in something besides winning.

"Because ultimately we're in a losing game," Ford said.

The talk came at a good time for Hamlin, who also was dealing with a lot in his personal life, including the breakup with his girlfriend.

"It definitely takes its toll on you," Hamlin said. "When you think about someone all the time, even when you're in the car, it definitely could get you sidetracked at times.

"It's just one of those things people have to go through in life and overcome it, and I feel I've done a good job of that."

As Hamlin has grown up, the decibel level at his house parties has gone down. And it's not because his neighbor, team owner Joe Gibbs, is at home more now that he doesn't coach the Washington Redskins.

"He's more fit than he's ever been," Ford said. "You don't get that way running around and living that lifestyle and the image he portrayed in years past.

"I think he realizes there was no future in that and he's backed down. He's taking care of himself. He's taking his racing very serious. Everything rotates around that."

Hamlin, who has shed 30 pounds in the past year and put on more muscle, acknowledged he is at peace more than ever.

"I've been keeping it low-key and going through a lot of things in my personal life," he said. "Just kind of taking things slow."

Driving and dribbling
Hamlin got up about 10 a.m. Monday, went for a two-hour workout, ate lunch, took a run, rested awhile, then played basketball on the court at his home.

"I'm so active every Monday it almost takes me more time to recover from that than the actual race," he said with a laugh.

This is Hamlin's way of burning off all the frustration from a race weekend. The more competitive he can be away from the track, "the more it gets my mind off it."

Basketball has become a big part of his therapy. It's not unusual to find him in a pickup game with Charlotte Bobcats players Raymond Felton and Sean May.

Or with NASCAR drivers Kasey Kahne and Busch.

"It's fun because we always can rag each other at the track on what we did on the basketball court," Hamlin said.

Busch may be having a better year on the track with seven Cup wins, but Hamlin said there's no doubt who is king on the basketball court.

"Without a doubt, I am better," he said. "Without a doubt. You can ask him on that. He's got a height advantage and is better on rebounds, but I've got a better shot.

"I might have a second profession."

We're just as competitive as Kyle [Busch], we just don't show it all the time. We need to perform the last 10. We may start 60 points behind, but that deficit is easy to make up.

-- Denny Hamlin

Hamlin doesn't really want a second profession. He simply wants to win races and ultimately a championship.

That Busch is having an unbelievable year drives Hamlin even harder. It also helps him realize that winning isn't all about being the best driver with the best equipment.

"Kyle definitely has performed very well," Hamlin said. "Kyle also has been very lucky in a lot of races that he's won. We're just as competitive as Kyle, we just don't show it all the time.

"We need to perform the last 10. We may start 60 points behind, but that deficit is easy to make up."

Hamlin has a legitimate shot at closing the bonus point deficit -- the top 12 drivers are reshuffled to even, then given 10 points for each win to start the Chase -- on Busch over the next six weeks.

His average finish at Pocono, Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, California and Richmond is as good as if not better than any other driver's.

"This is the point we're looking to make a strong run and let our race team peak so we can carry our confidence over into the Chase," Ford said. "The last couple of years, we peaked a little early. I don't think we've peaked yet."

But they have arrived, and Hamlin doesn't need an old soccer ball to know that.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.