NASCAR notes: Hamlin established as 2010 contender

  • By Dan Gelston Associated Press
  • Sunday, November 22, 2009 6:20pm
  • SportsSports

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Denny Hamlin put the rest of the Cup field on notice for 2010.

Hamlin’s victory Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway was his fourth of the season and sixth top-five in the 10-race Chase for the championship. Hamlin posted strong enough finishes at various races to contend for the Cup, but had just enough misfires to derail a serious run at Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Yes, Johnson is the early 2010 favorite to win a fifth straight championship.

Hamlin intends to wrest it away.

“I promise you the next couple of years we’re going to win a championship,” Hamlin said.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had his share of bad races in the Chase. Back-to-back poor finishes at California and Charlotte (37th, 42nd) all but ended his title hunt and he finished fifth in the standings, 317 points back of Johnson.

“There’s 10 races and you have to perform really good and be flawless in those ten,” Hamlin said. “It looks like the trend has been you get one bad race if you want to be a champion.”

Hamlin’s win total and points finish were the best of his four full seasons.

Hamlin was determined this season to develop into a team leader for JGR and fill the void left by two-time champion Tony Stewart. Hamlin followed through on his preseason promise and was the only JGR driver to qualify for the Chase.

Stewart’s decision to bolt JGR to own his own team opened the door for Hamlin to mature and show more confidence in voicing what he wanted for the No. 11 Toyota.

Hamlin said when he started with the organization, he wanted to pattern his style after Stewart. Or at least that was the expected method.

Hamlin learned his way works, too.

“When Tony left, it was like, I kind of want things this way,” Hamlin said. “Next thing you know, we start building cars more to my liking. You start setting up these different departments working on the things that I feel is the most important, maybe not somebody else.”

The 29-year-old Hamlin posted 20 top 10s this season and won his eighth career race in 151 career starts.

“I think everyone’s focused and fired up about next year knowing that we’re one of the few guys that can run with that 48 every single week,” Hamlin said.

LAST RIDES: Casey Mears and Reed Sorenson face an uncertain racing future in 2010. Both drivers made their final starts for the respective teams, don’t have a deal for next season — and potential rides already appear dried up.

Sorenson made his last start in the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports and finished 40th. He’ll lose his job once the RPM merges with Yates Racing.

Mears has no firm deal in place for next year and his on his way out at Richard Childress Racing. He was 19th at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Michael Waltrip, who actually led one lap, finished 30th in his last race as a full-time Cup driver. Waltrip will scale back to a partial schedule in 2010 to make room for Martin Truex Jr. to join Michael Waltrip Racing.

“He was a guy that always talks in a positive manner about NASCAR,” race winner Denny Hamlin said. “A lot of people were negative. He’s kind of that voice of reason of getting us back to reality that this is a fan’s sport regardless of what us drivers feel some time. I think he’s just done a really good job of that.”

JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENTS: Before Denny Hamlin starts thinking too much about how this year’s success will carryover into next season, he should consider the case of Carl Edwards.

The preseason pick to win the championship, Edwards was winless this season, hobbled by a broken foot and fell way back in the Chase pack in 11th place in the final standings.

“I know it’s been a tough year, but we’ll be back next year,” Edwards said. “We’re going to be all right. It’s just frustrating.”

Edwards was seventh on Sunday.

“I’d like to be happy with seventh place, but I’m not,” Edwards said. “We needed two or three more positions to beat Kasey (Kahne) for 10th in the points.”

By falling out of the top 10, Edwards will not be recognized on stage at the season-ending banquet, but at least Edwards can take small solace in making the Chase.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had another dismal finish in a dismal season. He suffered a flat tire, briefly fell a lap down and finished 28th on Sunday. Junior was 25th in the points standings while Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finished 1-2-3 in the standings.

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