NEW YORK -- In today's NASCAR world, Denny Hamlin represents the past. Not that he's yesterday's man, necessarily, but rather he's a link to the roots to what made the sport as popular as it is today.
Thursday's awards luncheon at chic Cipriani restaurant in midtown Manhattan, for instance, was all about the new NASCAR. You know, the NASCAR everyone's saying is still connected to its roots, but holds its awards functions in a city that doesn't have a track and dresses up its drivers in suits and ties. There, on the stage under the bright lights and computer-generated music, stood Jimmie Johnson, the ultimate new NASCAR champion, all gleaming, straight teeth, expensive suit and tie, eloquent vanilla appreciation, accompanied by his beautiful wife. It's as far away from the sport's moonshine roots as one could imagine.
Quietly observing at Table 4 was rookie of the year, sorry, Raybestos Rookie of the Year, Denny Hamlin. He seemed to be patiently enjoying himself, tolerating the endless parade of award presentations -- did you know there was an award for leading the race at the halfway point? -- but it didn't seem, somehow, like he fit in. Although appropriately dressed, it looked like he would have been more comfortable with a bump of chaw in his cheek, wearing coveralls, leaning under the hood, getting grease under his fingernails. He was not wearing a tie.
Hamlin is from Chesterfield, Va. Johnson is from El Cajon, Calif. Seeing them so close and yet so far apart like that was an interesting juxtaposition.
Hamlin, 26, didn't refute that he was more of an old-school winner when compared to Johnson.
"Yeah, I think so," he said. "I'm not sure really what his background is, but I know mine came from the way it used to come from. And that's moving up, 16 years old, you're running mini-stocks and then you're running Late Models, you're running some dirt stuff, next thing you know, you're coming up to the Cup level. I definitely had a lot of help in the right places to get me where I was at, but we got there the old-fashioned way by not buying our way in and not having a sponsor with us, and not having the right last name. We got there on old-fashioned performance, and that means a lot to me."
Hamlin was a contender in the Chase for the Nextel Cup down to the last race, ultimately finishing third in points, 68 back of Johnson. And he did it with a little flare and a lot of the equivalent to grinding in the corners for a loose puck. He inherited a team that had limited potential, and with the help of team Pooh-Bah J.D. Gibbs and veteran crew chief Mike Ford, he made a splash instantly by winning the Bud Shootout at Daytona. And he didn't fade, hanging on throughout the season with two wins and 20 top-10s while jockeying the No. 11 Chevrolet.
His next trick, of course, is to avoid becoming 2007's version of Carl Edwards. In similar fresh-faced fashion, the Roush Racing prodigy hit the big-time early and often in 2005, winning races with his Men's Fitness physique and making women do back flips over his charming Midwestern, aw-shucks good looks. Although Edwards wasn't technically a rookie, he was in his first full-time season, so expectations on the five-car Roush team were limited. He finished a stunning fifth in the points. In 2006, he was expected to contend for the title. But, the fact that he's not at the banquet-week celebrations -- which are reserved for series champions and the top 11 drivers in Cup -- should tell you how that turned out.
Although reluctant to dish out advice, Roush Racing's Mark Martin knew how Hamlin could avoid an Edwards-like second-season slide.
"I definitely had a lot of help in the right places to get me where I was at, but we got there the old-fashioned way by not buying our way in and not having a sponsor with us, and not having the right last name. We got there on old-fashioned performance, and that means a lot to me."
-- Denny Hamlin
"I think if he can keep his team giving him fast cars, that won't happen," said Martin, who will be moving on to Ginn Racing next year. "You're going to have a scrape or two along the way, but if he wants to have the same kind of performance next year as this year, he better hope he keeps getting good cars. That's really the key, and that's not easy to achieve."
Kevin Harvick, having had great success after he inherited Dale Earnhardt's Richard Childress ride in 2001, knows a thing or two about second-year disappointment. He said the off-track commitments are what Hamlin needs to keep his eye on in order to repeat his 2006 success.
"I think the second year's a lot harder because you know it's hard to learn how to manage your time and what to say no to, and what you can't say no to," said Harvick. "That's going to be the hardest thing for him to do. And [he should] take all this in, and stay focused through the winter and come back with a strong year. It will mean a lot of distractions for him, and hopefully he's got somebody good that'll help him out."
Harvick wouldn't say whether Hamlin was more representative of the old NASCAR ("I don't know. It just all depends on how you look at it, I guess.") nor would Kasey Kahne agree that he and Hamlin were old-school because they didn't wear ties to Thursday's awards ("We just chose the same attire, I guess."). But there is definitely a difference in what Hamlin brings to the table.
The way he answers questions, for example. Even if his answers are rehearsed or have been given innumerable times, you don't get that sense when he's giving them. If Johnson is vanilla, Hamlin is more Rocky Road, a throwback to the good ol' boys who founded and popularized the sport in their unpolished, incorporate manner. Dale Earnhardt Jr., a connection to the sport's past himself, described Hamlin as a "practical joker" and a "competitor."
"He seems pretty cool," Kahne said. "I've hung out with him a couple of times away from the track and we've had a good time, he's a fun guy. At the track, he's pretty focused and into driving, and that's where you need to be."
Kahne also didn't want to pretend to know how to give another driver advice, but did offer valuable perspective from his sensational rookie season and subsequent substandard sophomore season.
"[He should] do the same things he did this year -- be very controlling of what he does in the car out on the racetrack, and because he ran so good last year, don't expect that next year that you're going to win the championship or next year you're going to run better, you're going to win more races," he said. "I think I went into my second year thinking, 'Hey, we did awesome last year, we can do it again this year, we can do that,' and my whole team thought the same way, and we struggled and we didn't have as good a season."
For his part, Hamlin wants to improve his performances at Atlanta, Dover, Texas. He wants to have more input in the setups of the cars. And he wants to make the Chase again next year.
Regardless, Hamlin is in a good position for 2007. He's got crew chief Ford on his side, he's got the Joe Gibbs Racing machine behind him, he's a teammate to two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart. Things are looking good for Denny Hamlin.
"If he does the same things he did this year, he's going to be tough to beat all next year," Kahne said.
But will he wear a tie if he wins it all?
Paul Grant is a senior coordinator at ESPN.com.