Darlington: Denny Hamlin preview

DENNY HAMLIN Darlington -- "New Tough to Tame" HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (May 6, 2008) -- When Denny Hamlin got the news that Darlington (S.C.) Raceway was being repaved, he hoped someone was playing a cruel joke on him. The driver of the No. 18...

Darlington -- "New Tough to Tame"

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C., (May 6, 2008) -- When Denny Hamlin got the news that Darlington (S.C.) Raceway was being repaved, he hoped someone was playing a cruel joke on him.

The driver of the No. 18 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing is the two-time and reigning champion of the Diamond Hill Plywood 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Darlington. But his 117 total laps led in those back-to-back wins -- which began from the pole each time -- came on the old and gritty asphalt that lined Darlington's historic 1.366-mile layout.

And aside from winning the past two Nationwide Series races at Darlington, Hamlin has some additional history at the 58-year-old track.

The 27-year old Chesterfield Va.-native made his Nationwide Series debut at Darlington in November 2004, ironically with the No. 18 team that he'll be competing with this weekend. Hamlin impressed that day, as he qualified 27th and rallied his way to an eighth-place finish. The effort made the NASCAR world take notice, for a driver to earn a top-10 at Darlington in his first start was virtually unheard of, as Darlington is better known as a track that chews up and spits out rookies and veterans alike.

This weekend, Hamlin will be 98 races removed from the last time he wheeled the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing, as he's spent his time since behind the wheel of either Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 20 machine or Braun Racing's No. 32 entry.

While Darlington has always been known as the track "Too Tough to Tame" thanks in large part to its tight confines and formerly abrasive surface, this weekend's race at the egg-shaped oval will have plenty of unknowns with the introduction of new asphalt.

However, one of the great knowns this season is the Nationwide Series dominance by Joe Gibbs Racing. In the 11 races contested so far this season, Joe Gibbs Racing has seven victories, four poles and its drivers have led 1,027 of the 1,918 laps possible (53.5 percent). In addition to the overall season dominance, Joe Gibbs Racing has been particularly impressive of late, posting five consecutive wins, with the No. 18 team winning at Texas and Phoenix and the No. 20 team winning at Mexico City, Talladega (Ala.) and Richmond (Va.).

Hamlin has also been on a hot streak of his own, as he posted his first Nationwide Series win of the year last week at Richmond, his hometown track.

As Hamlin looks for a second straight Nationwide Series victory and his third straight at Darlington in his 100th career Nationwide Series race, he'll be joined by the employees and agents of the Farm Bureau Insurance Companies. Through their 4,200-member agency sales force, Farm Bureau Insurance provides auto, home and life insurance to customers and fans throughout the Southeast.

Darlington marks the first race for Hamlin in Farm Bureau Insurance colors, but it's the second of six events where Farm Bureau Insurance will adorn a Nationwide Series entry from Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kyle Busch, dominated the Nicorette 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this season in the No. 20 Farm Bureau Insurance Toyota, a he led five times for a race-high 153 laps before a right-front shock failure ended his bid to give Farm Bureau Insurance its first NASCAR victory.

While Hamlin's past success at Darlington won't "insure" a victory for him and Farm Bureau Insurance, the six-time Nationwide Series race winner still plans to carry his momentum from a week ago at Richmond, along with the train-like momentum of Joe Gibbs Racing, into the track that should now be called "New Tough to Tame."

Denny Hamlin -- Driver, No. 18 Farm Bureau Insurance NASCAR Nationwide Series Toyota Camry at Darlington

You've won the last two Nationwide Series races at Darlington. But now that it's repaved, what kind of race do you expect?

"I was hoping when they said the track was repaved that everyone was just lying to me because we had such a good car there the last two years. Dave (Rogers, No. 20 team crew chief) seemed like he found a great setup for that place. It's tough to say what kind of race we'll have since it's hard to imagine Darlington with new pavement. It's hard to say how good the racing is going to be since I haven't been on the repaved track, yet. Regardless, I know that Jason Ratcliff (No. 18 team crew chief) and all the guys on the Farm Bureau Insurance team will be on their game like they have been all season long. The only thing that concerns me is if we're going to have a good tire there. Hopefully, Goodyear will bring a good tire that isn't too hard, so it will allow us to run side-by-side."

How special was it to win at Richmond last weekend in front of your family and friends?

"Winning last Friday night was my biggest accomplishment as a race car driver so far in my career. Obviously, winning the Sprint Cup race on Saturday night would have been huge, too. But that just wasn't in the cards, I guess. We've worked so hard to get a win at Richmond and things finally worked out in our favor. We might not have had the best car all day, but we put ourselves into the position to be up front in the end when it counted. I could hear the fans cheering when I was doing my burnout and in victory lane, which made the night even more special. That means more to me than any trophy I could ever receive."

You're making your first start in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 car since you made your series debut in 2004 at Darlington. What are you expecting from crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the team this weekend?

"Jason Ratcliff has done such a great job to help build the JGR Nationwide Series program, just like Dave (Rogers) has. Even though the 18 guys aren't running every race this year, Jason is at the race track every week, learning everything he can to prepare for the races they run, as well as help Dave and the 20 team at the same time Those two guys are a key reason why the JGR Nationwide Series program has been so strong in the early part of the season. I'm excited to get back with the 18 guys since they were the team to give me my first Nationwide Series start back in 2004. The core group of guys that were with me in 2004 are still a part of that team, so it's going to be special to be back with the 18 at Darlington. To get back with them and know they had a few weeks to prepare for this race really gives me a lot of confidence that we can run up front and challenge for the win on Friday night."

Now that Joe Gibbs is back in North Carolina and back near the race team a bit more, have you seen a difference in how he motivates your race team and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing?

"Working for Coach Gibbs has always been great, but it's really nice to have him back around the race team a lot more. He's just so proactive at finding out problems within the race team. I'm not sure there are many owners who are around the shop as much as he is. He walks around the shop floor, working with the guys. He's working with sponsors and engineers, too. When we have an issue, it doesn't just go to our crew chiefs. It goes to Joe and he takes it and runs with it. I think that's why you see the performance of Joe Gibbs Racing really picking up this year. I think he's such a huge asset to have around, and I'm happy he's able to be in the race shop more this year."

-credit: jgr

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Drivers Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch
Teams Joe Gibbs Racing