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Hamlin heads to Martinsville to jump-start season
NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin, left, talks with crew chief Mike Ford, right, during a testing session at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Tuesday, March 23, 2010. The popular preseason pick to unseat four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is off to a disappointing start in what everyone predicted would be a breakthrough season.

CONCORD, N.C.  — Denny Hamlin stared silently at his race car, his hands in the pockets of his firesuit, his hat pulled low on his head. He smiled, made a quick joke, then quickly turned serious with his crew chief.

Hamlin has no more time to waste, and everyone knows it.

The popular preseason pick to unseat four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is off to a disappointing start in what everyone predicted would be a breakthrough season. This was going to be the year that Hamlin separated himself from the crowded pack of top drivers who win a race here or there, but never make the leap into superstar status.

Instead, through the first five races, he's failed to meet expectations. Hamlin is winless, hasn't scored a top-10 finish and is ranked 19th in the points. He's led just 39 laps all season, 32 of which were at Atlanta.

"He's a little disheartened. A little concerned," crew chief Mike Ford admitted. "But I would say optimistic."

With good reason.

The Sprint Cup Series shifts this weekend to Martinsville Speedway, where Hamlin has two victories and eight top-10 finishes in nine career starts. He ran a frustrating second to six-time Martinsville winner Johnson last spring, then flipped the finishing order last October for a gratifying victory.

So Hamlin goes home to Virginia, to a short track where he figures he can run top five "in reverse, blindfolded," knowing Sunday is the day he must jump start his season.

Although team owner Joe Gibbs pointed out Thursday that Hamlin traditionally starts slow each year, he was only half-kidding about the importance of this weekend.

"I'll say this," Gibbs said, smiling, "if we have problems at Martinsville, you're going to see panic city."

In fairness to Hamlin, he's not had a great deal of luck this season.

His strategy in the Daytona 500 was to be in position to race for the win at the end, and if not for three late restarts, he probably would have left the season opener with at least a top-10 finish. Instead, he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch were shuffled out of traffic in the chaotic final laps, and Hamlin finished 17th.

Ford admits the No. 11 was off at Fontana, where a tire issue contributed to the 29th-place finish, and the car was just bad at Las Vegas, where Hamlin was 19th.

But Atlanta was encouraging, and if not for another tire problem, Hamlin figures he would have been top three instead of 21st. His third tire issue of the season last week at Bristol never gave him an opportunity to see how good his car was, and he was 19th again.

Three tire problems in five races gives Hamlin hope that he's not that far off despite what the record book reflects.

"Other than Vegas, where we ran completely terrible, I haven't had a clean week," he said. "I need just a clean week with nothing breaking, no tires blowing, things like that. That's when we can assess where we're at."

That's why Martinsville is so critical. The event Sunday will reveal the truth about Hamlin's season because if he runs poorly, and doesn't have a mechanical issue to blame, then he's got a much bigger problem than anyone imagined.

"If we run sixth-to-10th, we know we're not bringing good enough cars to the race track," Hamlin said. "If we're leading and we get caught up in a wreck, then we know it's another week of we just need a week without problems. I think it will be a telling race for sure, because it is a race you can typically stay out of trouble, and usually the top performers perform well there."

Still, there's a mental aspect to this sport that must be considered, particularly when dealing with drivers who are trying to keep Johnson out of their heads. The most dominant driver in NASCAR has won three of the season's first five races, success that can play mind games with everyone in the garage.

Hamlin is a prime target.

His strong closing effort last season moved him to another level, and the confidence Hamlin gained contributed to a celebrity status that began to inch outside the confines of the NASCAR industry. He celebrated with a bash in Las Vegas, a whirlwind trip through Southern California, the opening of a glitzy Charlotte nightclub and a spread in Sports Illustrated that announced his arrival.

It was maddening attention for Ford, a quiet crew chief who prefers his team operates off the radar.

"For a crew chief, that's what's bothersome," Ford said. "You'd rather take all the media and all the hype and just isolate your guys from it, but you know you can't do that."

So Ford tried to manage Hamlin's psyche, warn his driver of the dangers of getting too high too early. After all, it's an 11-month season, and under the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format, the final 12 weeks are the most important stretch of the year.

The challenge for Ford is keeping Hamlin focused on what they need to improve and having the momentum when it matters most.

"He gets wrapped up in it, and he worries about it, but again, no matter how hard you worry about it, the more you worry about it, the more it screws you up," Ford said. "We've talked about it several times. I think he's getting more in-tune with the nuts and bolts of what actually matters. But I know it does affect him quite a bit."

Hamlin, for his part, has not lost his confidence. He's only 86 points out of 12th, and there's a long stretch of racing in front of him. So there was no hesitation when he was asked this week if he'll make the Chase.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Yeah. We're gonna make the Chase."

Then he admitted the work he's got cut out for him.

"If we're going to make the Chase, we have no choice but to be better every single week from here on out," he said. "One maybe encouraging thing is (Johnson) has never started out this strong. So is he going to be able to maintain that all year long? I don't see how. It's possible, I guess. Nothing is impossible with those guys.

"But usually when you start out very, very strong, people catch up. We'll see if that's the case or not."