EXPRESS NOTES: Hamlin in the Budweiser Shootout: Saturday's Budweiser Shootout at Daytona International Speedway will mark Denny Hamlin's sixth start in the non-points, pre-season exhibition event. Hamlin earned a lifetime invitation into the race with a Bud Shootout victory in his very first try as a rookie in 2006. The Chesterfield, Va., native captured a pole at Phoenix in 2005 -- a year he made just seven Cup starts -- to gain entry into the 2006 Shootout under the old format, an opportunity he took full advantage of. Driver eligibility for 2011 is based on Chase participants from 2010, past NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions, former Bud Shootout winners, points race winners at Daytona and Sprint Cup Series 'Rookie of the Year' winners from the previous 10 seasons. As the 2006 Bud Shootout winner, 2006 'Rookie of the Year' and a 2010 Chase participant, Hamlin is more than qualified to compete Saturday night. Hamlin finished fifth in the 2010 Shootout, behind winner Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. It marked his best finish in the event since his 2006 victory. Starting order for Saturday's event will be determined by a blind draw Friday night, with Hamlin's best "qualifying effort" of fifth coming in 2009. He started 24th one year ago. Hamlin has led a total of 20 laps in Bud Shootout competition -- 16 in 2006 and four in 2009.
HAMLIN CONVERSATION -- BUDWEISER SHOOTOUT:
What are your thoughts heading into the Budweiser Shootout? "The Shootout is a fun event and it's a race that we all want to win. It's unique because you aren't worrying about points, about how it's going to affect your season. You'll probably see guys try things in the Shootout that you won't see in the 500 but it's a short race and the format means that there is nothing to lose at the end. I think that's what the fans like about this race. We just go out there and race."
What is your outlook for the 2011 season? "I'm ready to go. I feel as confident as we've ever been. Every year we've steadily made a progression towards the top and obviously had a career year last year. We know we can do it and we can win at all different kinds of race tracks. For me, I think we have everything in place. I'm keeping all of my key personnel from what we had last year. No changes there. Pit crew is the same. The driver will be a little bit better. Everything is in place to hopefully pull out a first one."
Are you the driver to unseat Jimmie Johnson this year? "I hope so. This is almost a free year for me. A lot of people are going to expect us to have a bad year coming off such a good year, because the expectations were so high last year. We came through and succeeded in winning a bunch of races like we said we were. We were championship contenders -- almost won the championship. And this year, a lot of people expect a letdown year because it's happened to guys before. For me, I know my passion for racing, and it's impossible for me to fail in that aspect. Unless something crazy happens, we're going to be right back in the same position this year as what we were last year."
How do you feel about the new points system? "I think (NASCAR) hit it right on the head. I really don't think they could've made it any simpler for the new race fan coming into the sport or the driver that knows he's 10 points behind. He's got to pass 10 cars. It makes things so much simpler and for me it's well understood. I think it's going to reward those guys that go out and win during the regular season. It's going to give you three bonus points. That's three spots -- that's like 15 points going into the Chase versus last year's 10. It's going to pay to win races nowadays."
Does the new points system change your strategy? "I think you're going to have to run it the exact same way. The only difference is that wins are obviously going to pay more points. I like it. Of course, we won a lot of races last year. If we don't win any going into the Chase this year, I'm not going to like it that much, but it should pay the guy that wins. You should see a battle -- a guy that's giving it all he's got running second trying to win the race. I think NASCAR set that up for us, teed it up for us, and now it's up to us to go out there and put on the show."
How do you put last year behind you to focus on 2011? "Nothing fuels me more than losing. We're all competitors and each one of us knows that when you finish second, it's fuel. It doesn't matter what sport I'm in -- if I lose, I'm going to work to try to be better at it. For racing, it's my number one passion and my number one focus to try to be the best at. We've gotten close to the top, we just need one more position. And I consider anything less than a championship a failure. A lot of guys will say that, but for me, finishing second in points, there's no other room to go up other than winning a championship. Taking a step back is finishing any worse than I did last year."