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Hamlin still searching for breakthrough

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[July 30, 2009]  NEW YORK (AP) -- Scan the top of the NASCAR standings, and Denny Hamlin is there, same as always.

The Joe Gibbs Racing star has his No. 11 Toyota a relatively comfortable sixth in the points race, in good position to make the Chase for the championship with six races to go.

So, everything's great heading into Sunday's race at Pocono, right?

Not exactly.

"On paper it looks good that we're sixth," Hamlin said. "I'm not comfortable with where we're at."

How could he be?


The 28-year-old began the year saying "it's time to be a champion, not a guy that contends."

Yet with the season more than halfway gone, Hamlin is still searching for his first trip to Victory Lane and is in the middle of the longest winless drought of his career: 50 races and counting.

While most drivers would hardly quibble with his season or a resume that includes a berth in the Chase in each of the last three years, Hamlin has grown tired of watching his dreams of a championship consistently fade in the fall.

This year was supposed to be different, but the ban on offseason testing combined with the remarkable strength of Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing has left Hamlin and JGR teammate Kyle Busch among the drivers scrambling to play catch-up with the likes of superstars Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

"Week in, week out it's a Hendrick car winning one way, shape or form," Hamlin said. "Pretty much they're taking all the top five spots, to be honest with you. We feel like we've got a tall mountain to climb."

The ascent didn't get off to a good start at Indianapolis.

Busch stumbled to 38th after his right front tire blew, and a broken drive shaft early in the race sent Hamlin to the garage for 16 laps. He finished 34th, the third time in the last eight races he's found himself in the bottom 10.

Afterward JGR president J.D. Gibbs admitted "we might not have the best stuff right now."


Hamlin estimated JGR is the team best equipped to close the gap, but feels Hendrick and Stewart-Haas have a distinct advantage because of their technical alliance.

"Ultimately, they're getting better feedback," Hamlin said. "... We hear on the radio when (Stewart) struggles or (Ryan Newman) struggles, they just say over the radio, 'Hey, go get the notes from (Mark Martin's car) and find out what he's running.' That's big."

Don't get Hamlin wrong, he's not whining. He believes there's enough time left in the season for JGR to make inroads, but the margin for error is small.

While Busch has three wins this season for JGR, his inability to consistently salvage something out of "bad" races has left him 14th in the standings, 82 points out of the Chase heading into this weekend's visit to Pocono.

Busch pledged to be a more positive influence after a meltdown at Chicago earlier this month, and Hamlin said he's seen a change in the way the Busch handles himself on the track.

"He has stepped it down," Hamlin said. "He's not going all out like he did I think, before. He's trying to finish as good as he can."

Having a teammate in the Chase would certainly help, and Hamlin has pledged to do what he can to make sure Busch rallies over the next six weeks.

He doesn't, however, feel any additional pressure as JGR's elder statesmen. He knows now that it will take more than one driver at JGR to fill the void left by the departure of Stewart, who won two titles at Gibbs before leaving at the end of last year to become a driver and co-owner at Stewart-Haas.

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"It takes me and Kyle and Joey (Logano) to step up and kind of fill the gap that Tony left here as far as doing the hard work of going and doing some testing at these racetracks, figuring out what we need to get better," Hamlin said. "It's really on all of our shoulders, not just mine because I've been here the longest."

Maybe, but neither Busch nor Logano have been as close to a title as Hamlin was in 2006 when he finished third behind Johnson and Matt Kenseth. He's made the Chase in each of the last two seasons but hardly been a factor, finishing eighth in 2007 and sixth last year.

The success has been nice, but it's not been enough for a driver who grew used to winning once every four or five races during his pre-Cup career. He's worked hard to develop a better relationship with crew chief Mike Ford, and owner Joe Gibbs praised Hamlin's maturity during the offseason.


The fact he's managed to be competitive despite Hendrick's dominance is a testament to Hamlin's patience. Yet the frustration of knowing he's likely not driving the fastest car is starting to get old.

"Believe me, I don't want to go to the racetrack every single week and say, 'Man, I know we can run top five, but are we going to have the best car? I doubt it. Probably a Hendrick car will have the best car. Probably one of those guys are going to hit it and we're going to be chasing them,'" Hamlin said. "I don't like that attitude and feeling that way when we go to the racetrack. I want to feel like we can win every single week we step in the car."

A return to Pocono should help. Hamlin won there twice during his rookie season, a time when he thought he had this whole Cup thing figured out. Things haven't been quite the same since the series moved to the new car, though he still has five top-10s in seven career starts at the unique 2.5-mile circuit.

"We always run well there," he said. "It just tends to my style a little bit and when we go there Mike has a good feel. ... We're always going to be competitive there."

If Hamlin wants to prove he's ready to make a legitimate run at a title, he knows he'll need to be more than that.

[Associated Press; By WILL GRAVES]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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