Hamlin finishing season in a familiar role

  • By Scott Whitmore Herald Writer
  • Saturday, October 27, 2007 12:27am
  • SportsSports

Deja vu all over again.

That’s how NASCAR driver and Snohomish native Kevin Hamlin must have felt after learning he’ll spend another week at the track not racing.

Instead of driving this weekend, Hamlin will serve as the spotter for the Busch Series debut of Dario Franchitti, his newest teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates (CGRFS).

Franchitti, the 2007 Indianapolis 500 winner and reigning IndyCar Series champion, has been reunited at CGRFS with former CART teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indy 500 in 2000 before moving to Formula One and then to NASCAR this season.

“I’m helping Dario make the transition over just like I did Juan,” Hamlin said Wednesday via e-mail. “He’s very friendly and isn’t afraid to ask questions. … I’m spotting for him this weekend at Memphis ­— a race that I was originally supposed to run — to try (to) help him get comfortable with everything.”

Today’s Sam’s Town 250 at Memphis Motorsports Park will be Franchitti’s third race in a vehicle with fenders. He finished 33rd last weekend in his NASCAR debut in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Martinsville, Va., and 17th in an ARCA series race at Talladega on Oct. 5.

At the beginning of this season, Hamlin was scheduled to make eight Busch starts while sharing driving duties in the No. 42 Dodge with Montoya. The team’s thinking was that Montoya could use as much wheel time as possible to smooth his transition from open-wheel to stock cars.

When Montoya recorded his first stock car victory — at the Busch Series Telcel Motorola Mexico 250 on the road course in Mexico City — Hamlin served as one of his spotters.

Hamlin made the most of his starts, placing seventh in the Gateway 250 on July 21 in Madison, Ill., and eighth the following weekend in the Kroger 200 at O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis.

Montoya’s rapid adjustment to stock car racing prompted Ganassi to announce the termination of the No. 42 Busch team on Aug. 1.

“The Busch races were to prepare (Montoya) for (Nextel) Cup competition and the 42 team has done that,” Hamlin said at the time of the announcement. “Still, I’m bummed. We’ve been running really well — it’s just bad timing.”

Ganassi later reversed the decision, but gave subsequent Busch starts in the No. 42 to drivers other than Hamlin, including CGRFS Rolex Sports Car series driver Michael Valiante and Red Bull Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger.

In his seventh and probably final Busch start of the season, Hamlin hit the wall coming out of turn 4 and finished 42nd at the Carfax 250 on Aug. 18 at Michigan International Speedway.

Wanting to drive and concerned about the future — he and wife Mandi are expecting their first child early next year ­— Hamlin met with Ganassi in early August to find out where he stood with the team.

“I have a five-year deal with an option every season, so it’s up to Chip whether I stay or not,” Hamlin said Wednesday. “I told the team that if they kept me, I’d like to race. If they didn’t think I’d be racing, to let me go so I could find another job. They said they’d like to run me, and kept me on the payroll.”

Next season Hamlin hopes to make between eight and 12 starts in the newly renamed Nationwide Series (Anheiser-Busch’s sponsorship of NASCAR’s No. 2 series ends this season). Between races, he’ll be busy testing and helping his newest teammate, a former open-wheel champion, acclimate to stock cars.

While that sounds a lot like his plans — only partially realized — for the season that’s about to end, Hamlin said he’s fortunate to have the opportunity to do what he loves.

“Obviously I’d like to run full time,” he said. “But I have a pretty cool job that’s fun, that not everyone gets to do, and that pays the bills.”

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