Monday, February 13, 2006

Rookie Hamlin Is For Real

The 2006 Budweiser Shootout is now in the books. It did not disappoint. An exciting race from start to finish, it was full of surprises, the biggest one, to many, being the emergence of young rookie Denny Hamlin as a driver to contend with in a restricter plate race.

This was Hamlin's first restricter plate race, and his first race at Daytona, in a Cup car. And he won. That is no easy task for a rookie. Restricter plate races are dangerous. The engine does not have the power to accelerate get out of a bad situation, and, with all the cars on the track being inches apart from each other at nearly 200 mph, the entire race is a bad situation. One mistake (cough Kyle Busch cough) may not wreck the driver who makes the mistake, but it could cause anaccordionn effect, where drivers three cars back get wrecked in chain reaction. The driver must exercise patience, must pick the right moment to move, and must have finely tuned reflexes to avoid running into the driver ahead of him (cough Brian Vickers cough). If the race itself isn't tough enough, the competition in the Shootout, even though it is not a points race, is probably the toughest in the entire racing season. Every driver there is one who has qualified in the pole position for at least one race during the previous season, or has previously won the Bud Shootout. Every driver is there to win, if only for bragging rights or honor, and it is no place for a rookie.

Denny Hamlin won his place in the Shootout by taking the pole position in the November 2005 Nextel Cup race at Phoenix. It was only his sixth start at the Cup level.

A driver can participate in up to seven races in a single season at Cup level, but more than that and the season becomes that driver's rookie year. For example, another young racing sensation, Carl Edwards, raced in eleven Nextel Cup events in 2004, eliminating him from rookie status in 2005. Hamlin, during the last half of the 2005 season, shared duties in the Joe Gibbs #11 Federal Express car with fellow Busch series driver JJ Yeley and veteran Cup icon Terry Labonte, limiting his participation to seven Nextel Cup races. Thus, he became one of the very few rookie drivers ever to become eligible for the Bud Shootout.

While Hamlin's performance in the Bud Shootout certainly drew the attention of fans and the media, more importantly, it drew the attention of the other drivers, even while the race was in progress. In restricter plate races, one needs the help of other drivers to get ahead of the competition; two cars are faster than one. A rookie has very little hope of finding drafting partners, what Darrell Waltrip refers to as "co-opetition." The yellow rookie stripe on a car is a warning to others that "This guy doesn't know what he is doing, and should be avoided." Prior to the race, Hamlin, himself, had told his crew to not expect him to do anything except hold his place, that he would probably spend the race as a "back marker."

But veteran crew chief, Mike Ford, had given Denny Hamlin an excellent car for the race. Realizing this, Denny quickly took advantage of his car's superiority and made his way to the front, avoiding accidents and errors. Once he got up toward the front, he did find drafting partners, in the persons of Gibbs Racing team mate and mentor Tony Stewart, and championship hopeful Jimmie Johnson. An excellent green flag pit stop, mandatory in the second segment of the Bud Shootout, put him in postition to take the lead. Stewart bump drafted Hamlin into the lead, telling him, via team radio communications, to "hold your line at the bottom, and I'll take care of the rest."

When a near accident shuffled Stewart toward the rear of the field, Hamlin felt that he had been "hung out to dry." But he took his mentor's advice and held the bottom line on the track, and Stewart, with the help of restricter plate ace Michael Waltrip, quickly made his way back to a position where he could help Denny. Also near the front were the acknowledged Master of restrictor plate racing, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and last year's "bad boy," Jimmy Johnson. Both were determined to win. Stewart took the lead, with 4 laps to go, but a caution flag came out for debris, after several cars brushed the wall in the melee to get to the front. The remaining 4 laps were consumed by the cleanup effort, but, by rule, the Shootout must end under a green flag, so the restart began a two lap sprint, known as a "green, white, checker" finish. Stewart took the lead, but was quickly overtaken by the very capable Earnhardt, Jr. However, Hamlin, who restarted first in the outside lane, was given a good push by Jimmy Johnson, putting him two full car lengths ahead of Earnhardt. Hamlin took the white flag, signaling the final lap, making his way back to the coveted inside lane. The final lap was very excitinMakingh Earnhardt, Jr. making a serious attempt to win, and Stewart trying both to beat Earnhardt and to protect his team mate's lead. Hamlin took the win, in what was only his eighth start in a Nextel Cup car, and he gained the respect of every other driver in the race. Stewart and Earnhardt finished side by side for second, electronic scoring giving Earnhardt the position.

Remarkable to note is that Denny Hamlin ran the entire Busch Series circuit last year without a single win.

As expected, it was an emotional win. Not for Denny Hamlin; the enormity of his accomplishment had not yet sunk in. He showed his teammanship by congsponsoring his team and sponser, Federal Express, on finally getting a much deserved win. He declared that he would win Rookie of the Year honors for the 2006 season, not out of unqualified egotism, but out of pride for his team. He was happy that he had won, but had not yet overwhelmed by his accomplishment. The emotion was evident in his parents, who made no attempt to hide profuse tears of pride and joy. Their son, who had nearly ended his racing career in 2003, due to lack of funding for his short track team, had proven himself to the world.

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