Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hamlin prepares for NASCAR season despite torn ACL

Denny Hamlin enters the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season as one of a handful of drivers capable of preventing Jimmie Johnson from winning an unprecedented fifth straight Cup championship.
But Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, tore his ACL playing basketball last week. With the Daytona 500 less than a month away, Hamlin decided to forego surgery to repair his torn ACL until the end of the season.
Racing with a torn ACL might reduce his chances of challenging Johnson for the Cup championship. But Hamlin said he would rather race than have surgery.
Hamlin talked about how having a torn ACL will affect his ability to race. He also talked about being compared to Carl Edwards, what it’s going to take to beat Johnson and his No. 48 team for Hendrick Motorsports, having two young teammates in Kyle Busch and Joey Logano and how his relationship with Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been strained in recent years.
“I hate people comparing me to Carl Edwards,” Hamlin said. “I am not Carl Edwards.”
Edwards, a driver for Roush Fenway Racing, and Hamlin have some similarities. One is that they both came into the Cup series the same year as rookies together. Another is that they have both been declared legitimate challengers to Johnson’s reign in the Cup Series in recent years. Edwards was predicted to be the Cup champion in 2009. Hamlin has been receiving the same kind of attention to dethrone Johnson this year.
But Hamlin insists he is a very different driver than Edwards.
When the Chase started in 2009, Hamlin admits he might have panicked a little bit in the first few races. He did not finish two of the first four Chase races, including the one at Auto Club Speedway in October, and fell out of contention. But he said Johnson brings an intimidation factor to races and it affects how other drivers perform.
“He does a good job of making other guys make mistakes,” Hamlin said, adding Johnson and his team overcome obstacles that other teams can’t. “They find a way to come back from that adversity.”
While Hamlin rallied in the last six races of the Chase, winning the season finale in Homestead-Miami Speedway, it wasn’t enough to catch Johnson. But Hamlin and his team aren’t the only ones gunning for Johnson.
“We’re not the only team that has something for them,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin has two very young teammates in Busch and Logano. Each has a bit of a maverick streak, which suits Hamlin fine. Both Busch and Logano also have a commitment from Joe Gibbs Racing that will keep them in Cup for a while.
“He’s going to be there,” Hamlin said of Logano. “He’ll be there for a very long time.”
When Hamlin was coming up through the ranks of NASCAR, he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a fairly close relationship. But Hamlin said that relationship grew distant once they both started racing in Cup.
“The wishbone went its separate way,” Hamlin said.
One of the reasons for the strain on their friendship was their commitments to sponsors and other obligations that come with being a Cup driver. Another reason was that the competitive nature of the sport. Both started winning races and both became adversaries rather than friends.

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