For Snohomish native and NASCAR Busch Series driver Kevin Hamlin, returning to Evergreen Speedway to compete in tonight’s season-opening Speedway Chevrolet 125 will be doubly sweet.
First, there is the return to his racing roots on the track where he was named rookie of the year in 1997. Second – and perhaps more important from his perspective – he’ll be racing competitively for the first time this season.
“It’s going to be great,” Hamlin said in a recent telephone interview. “Nothing beats coming home and especially coming home to run. I’m really happy Evergreen Speedway invited me.”
Weather permitting, the 125-lap super stock race begins at 7 p.m. Gates open at 3:30 p.m.
“We’re his home track, where he started racing,” Evergreen track manager Terry Buell said of Hamlin. “He’s always said he wanted to come back. We called him and he’s available, so here he comes.”
Hamlin ran 14 Busch Series races in 2005 when his team, Chip Ganassi Racing, loaned him out to broaden his experience. But he was limited to just one start in 2006, filling in for teammate Reed Sorenson when Sorenson temporarily left the Busch Series to run a Nextel Cup race.
“That was really, really hard. This year is a lot better – I’ve got the opportunity for eight races in the (No. 42) Texaco/Havoline Dodge,” Hamlin said. “At least this year I’m running. I plan on hopefully being full time in the No. 42 car next year. That’s my personal goal. … I’m a competitive guy and I want to be running.”
Hamlin, whose first race is slated for April 7 in Nashville, is sharing driving duties in the No. 42 car with ex-Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya, whose decision to begin competing on the NASCAR circuit generated a lot of attention on how well his skills would transfer from open-wheel to stock-car racing.
Many of those questions were answered on March 4 in Mexico City, where Montoya recorded his first NASCAR victory in the Busch Series Telcel Motorola Mexico 200.
“He’s got such a huge amount of natural God-given talent,” Hamlin said of his teammate. “It’s sickening. I wish I had it.”
Hamlin served as a spotter for Montoya in Mexico City, and has been able to help his new teammate make the transition to NASCAR.
“(Crew chief) Brad (Parrott) will make little changes to the car and I’ll stick my head in the window and tell Juan what that’s going to do,” Hamlin said.
Montoya will return the favor later this summer when Hamlin races on a road course in Montreal.
“Juan’s been there a bunch of times in open-wheel cars,” Hamlin said. “He says he knows some tricks about that race track that he’s going to share with me.”
Hamlin might not be in the position to get advice from NASCAR’s newest star if it weren’t for some pushing from his wife, Mandi .
“I’d run really well back home, held a few records here and there in the NASCAR Northwest series. I’d always been close to getting a (NASCAR) truck or Busch ride, but nothing ever really panned out,” Hamlin said. “The thing that really broke it for me was when my wife – at that time Mandi and I were just dating – said ‘You’ve just got to go to Charlotte.’
“My mom and dad, we’d talked about that for a long time, but to be honest, I was just scared to do it.”
Parents Ken and Donna Hamlin were both racers and Kevin Hamlin began his competitive career at the age of 3, winning his first race three years later in a quarter-midget car. That early success prompted Ken Hamlin put his own racing career on hold to focus on developing his son’s talents.
After years of success in quarter midgets, including eight regional titles, Hamlin moved into late-model racing. In 1998 he began competing in the NASCAR Northwest Series, where he won back to back titles in 2001 and 2002.
Kevin and Mandi Hamlin married in 2004 and, thinking he had secured a ride in the NASCAR truck series, they headed to North Carolina, where many NASCAR teams have their headquarters.
“I had a lot of fun running on the local scene, but I always wanted something bigger and better,” Hamlin said. “If you want to be an actor, you go to Hollywood, if you want to be a race car driver, you go to North Carolina.”
Halfway through their cross-country move the newlyweds learned Kevin Hamlin’s truck ride was canceled. Still, they pressed ahead with their plan to relocate. For almost a year Mandi supported the couple while Kevin worked odd jobs and tried to break into racing.
In 2005, fellow driver Brendan Gaughan introduced Kevin Hamlin to NASCAR Nextel Cup driver Kenny Schrader. That led to Kevin Hamlin driving Schrader’s car in two races in the ARCA series.
From there things “just kind of snowballed into getting hooked up at Ganassi.” Kevin Hamlin said.
Evergreen manager Buell isn’t surprised Kevin Hamlin has made it as far as he has.
“If you were to cast glances around to look at (local) drivers with talent and potential, certainly he had a great shot,” Buell said. “Kevin Hamlin is a hard worker – a hard, hard worker. … Every lap he races he’s on the wheel. He dedicates himself to all the little things you have to do to succeed.”
Tonight, that hard work will be on display when Kevin Hamlin returns to his roots and to competitive racing.