ALL-STAR: Time For A Change - Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota CamryFirst All-Star start: 5/19/2007Best finish: 4th, 2009How he made the race: Won Aug. 2009 race at Pocono Raceway

Editor’s note: Eighteen drivers are guaranteed to start in the May 22 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, which will be televised live on SPEED, starting at 7 pm Eastern. Following is the seventh of 18 profiles of those drivers locked into the field.

Denny Hamlin hasn't ever been a popular pick to win the Sprint All-Star Race.

That may be about to change.

Once primarily known as a short-track ace, Hamlin has recently demonstrated a similar knack for navigating the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ mile-and-a-half tracks.

After failing to win at a mile-and-a-half facility in nearly four full Cup seasons, Hamlin has triumphed twice in his last four starts at such venues with the first coming in last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the most recent on April 19 at Texas Motor Speedway.

This could bode well for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver heading into the All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile track with a tri-oval configuration cut out of the same mold as Texas and Homestead.

“To have that win at Homestead to end last season, then to go to a place like Texas and win has put an emphasis on just how much our program has improved over the last year,” Hamlin said. “We missed at Vegas (another 1.5-mile track) this spring and we didn’t panic because we knew this is what we could do when we are on. We expect to be on at these tracks now.”

Hamlin finished a career-best fourth out of 21 cars in last year’s All-Star race after being 23rd and 17th, respectively, with DNFs in 2008 and 2007. He didn’t compete in the race as a rookie in 2006.

“There is definitely a lot of pride at stake in this race,” said the 29-year-old Hamlin. “This race is a tradition in this sport and the fans have continued to embrace it over the years, so it keeps growing and growing.

“I think everyone wants to add their name to the list of drivers who have won this because we all grew up watching this race. I know I did and it was a race that I never missed watching, so to have the chance to participate has been cool, but to win it would be that much better.”

Hamlin was leading in the final segment two years ago when a blown engine ended his night with 14 laps to go.

If you think he's forgotten about that near-miss in the popular exhibition race, you think wrong.

“It was a terrible feeling to have that opportunity slip away,” the Chesterfield, Va., native said. “It makes us want that win even more. Even though you aren’t racing for points and this race doesn’t affect standings or the Chase (for the Sprint Cup) or any of that, winning this race means a lot, so you’ll see the teams doing whatever they can to get that win.”

If there’s any track on the Cup schedule that owes Hamlin a break, it's probably Charlotte. He and his Mike Ford-led team were also in contention for the victory at CMS last October before another blown engine cut their race short. The resulting DNF and 42nd-place finish put the final dagger in Hamlin’s bid for the 2009 series title.

“It’s the best I’ve ever ran at (Charlotte),” Hamlin said of the race in which he led 54 laps. “Had a shot to win it, (I) felt like. ... Mike and the guys did a great job providing me a race-winning car.”

Hamlin enters the 26th edition of the All-Star race as one of the hottest drivers on the Cup circuit, having won twice after finishing no better than 19th in the season’s first five races.

Like a lot of his competitors, Hamlin gets pretty amped up for the All-Star race – a fan-friendly affair that includes only select drivers, doles out over $1 million to win and doesn’t award points. The race is also always short compared with regular points races, and 2010 is no different.

The main event will feature 100 laps divided into four segments, with the final 10-lap segment being the one that really counts – and pays the big money.

“With the 10-lap segment and a double-file restart at the end, I think the fans will see a really tight race and it should get pretty wild at the end, and that’s a good thing," Hamlin said. "This race is famous for last-lap battles and close finishes.”

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