2014 Sprint Cup Championship preview: Denny Hamlin

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Driver: Denny Hamlin
Age: 33 (turns 34 on Nov. 18)
Full-time seasons in Sprint Cup: nine
Career starts: 325
Career wins: 24
Career top-5 finishes: 91
Career top-10 finishes: 183
Pole positions: 20

* 2014 record to date: 34 starts, one win, seven top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. Three poles. Laps led: 313. Average start per race: 14.7. Average finish per race: 14.5. Lead lap finishes: 27.

* Highest single-season finish to date: Second, 2010

* Season finishes to date: 2005 (41st), 2006 (third), 2007 (12th), 2008 (eighth), 2009 (fifth), 2010 (second), 2011 (ninth), 2012 (sixth), 2013 (23rd).

* Homestead Record: 9 career starts, 2 wins, 4 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in 2009 and 2013. Average start: 29.2. Average finish: 11.2.

* Year-by-year finishes at Homestead: 2005 (33rd), 2006 (third), 2007 (third), 2008 (13th), 2009 (first), 2010 (14th), 2011 (ninth), 2012 (24th), 2013 (first).

Will the third time be the charm for Denny Hamlin?

The Virginia native has twice been close to winning the championship, only to fall short each time (finished second in 2010 and third in 2006).

Will he finally do it in his third – and potentially best – chance this Sunday?

In addition, Hamlin has two wins at the fast 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway track, including winning last year’s event. That win is particularly notable because it ended on a high note what had been a dire season, including Hamlin missing four races due to a serious crash early in the season at Fontana, California.

Hamlin is the only one of the four drivers vying for this year’s championship who has ever won previously at Homestead – and he’s done it twice.

“I’ve had a one-in-three shot (to win the championship heading into Homestead) before in 2010, but this is so different with this format,” Hamlin said. “You know you’re up against three other guys and whoever comes out on top is going to be our champ. I’m very encouraged after the test we had there two weeks ago.”

Hamlin also loves the new elimination format of the Chase. As for critics who’ve bashed it, particularly the fact that some of NASCAR’s biggest stars – including six-time champ Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and others – aren’t represented in the final round, Hamlin doesn’t want to hear it.

“The people that outcry this system is bad is when their favorite driver doesn’t make it,” Hamlin said. “The system is fine. It’s exciting. Every race is exciting.

“There’s not been one boring race, and every race, it comes down to somebody on a restart or something. This is the best thing that’s happened to this sport in a really long time. Just because your favorite driver doesn’t make it, it could go the other way for them next year. Let’s just leave this thing alone for a little while.”

Hamlin and his other three competitors for the championship all have the same incentive: to earn their respective first-ever Sprint Cup crown.

But there’s also significant incentive for Hamlin’s crew chief, Darian Grubb.

Grubb is the only crew chief among the four who enter Sunday’s race that already has a Sprint Cup championship trophy, having done so with Tony Stewart and Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011.

Grubb’s “reward” for winning that title? In unprecedented fashion, he was released from the team immediately after leading Stewart to five wins in 10 races in that 2011 Chase, capped off with a win at Homestead and earning the championship on the first tie-breaker: wins (Stewart had five wins for the entire season to just one for Carl Edwards).

While Grubb will not talk about whether he has revenge on his mind, it’s hard not to imagine how much he’d not only love to win his second career championship, but also to do so by beating SHR and it’s lone championship round representative, Kevin Harvick, in Sunday’s race for the crown.

Lastly, Hamlin has a decided edge over his competitors in overall performance at Homestead: has completed a near-perfect 99.8 percent (2,399) of the 2,404 total laps contested in nine career starts. His average start there is 29.2, but his average finish is a much more respectable 11.2. He has zero DNFs there.

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