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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin spent his last day off this week playing 18 holes on Doral's Blue Monster. He has a 34th birthday celebration planned with family and friends on a yacht Saturday night.
Four years after coughing away his chance at a first Sprint Cup title, Hamlin has another shot and is determined to have a far different approach than 2010. He was the points leader headed into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he was stressed the entire time.
He struggled from the opening practice, couldn't ever find a groove and lost the title to Jimmie Johnson.
It haunted Hamlin deep into the 2011 season.
"I know when we walked out of the media center (in 2010), he turned to me and he made a comment like, 'I cost us that championship,'" recalled team owner Joe Gibbs. "I said, 'Denny, you got us here.' But it was truly devastating for him."
It took the help of a sports psychologist for Hamlin to move past 2010, but he's yet to return to the form that nearly won him a championship. The hangover from his loss translated into a one-win season in 2011, the next year was better with five victories, but he was eliminated from contention at about the midway point of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
A wreck at Fontana last year led to a broken back and Hamlin missed five races. He drove in pain the rest of the season in a failed bid to make the Chase, and his season-ending win at Homestead was the lone bright spot.
He has not been dominant this year, but the new elimination-style Chase gave Hamlin a fresh chance at redemption. He quietly moved through all three rounds of the Chase to advance to Sunday's finale at Homestead against Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman. The title goes to the highest finishing driver.
Hamlin made a point of highlighting the differences between 2010 and now, and insists this time he is "just playing this game way more relaxed."
Four years ago, he shut himself out from the world on the night before the race. He didn't want anyone bothering him and felt focus was all that mattered.
In hindsight, straying from his routine was the worst thing he could have done.
"That wasn't what got me to that point — it was being myself and having my friends and family around, playing cards before driver intros, whatever it took to loosen me up," Hamlin said. "That's what I did for 35 races and I changed that for one race. It won't be the case this time around."
Part of his ease is because this second title shot is a bit of a gift to Hamlin. In any other year, he long ago would have been mathematically eliminated from title contention. But this new format has allowed him to advance through the rounds by being just good enough when it counted: Through nine Chase races, Hamlin has five top-10 finishes. His best finish was last week at Phoenix, where he came back from a lap down twice to finish fifth and move into the final.
Although Hamlin sounded panicked when he first began his fight back last week, he calmed down and focused on the difficult task ahead.
"He is just a different person," said Darian Grubb, the crew chief who joined Hamlin in 2012. "He's matured a lot with all the issues he's gone through with losing a championship that way and being so frustrated with it and going through the slump he did the year after and realizing afterward that his attitude has a lot to do with that slump."
The broken back and the birth of his daughter, Taylor, have also helped Hamlin understand the bigger picture. As a two-time and the defending winner at Homestead, he believes he has the best shot on Sunday and it's his championship to lose.
But, should he fall short again, Hamlin is confident he'll bounce back next season and not suffer the way he did in 2010.
"This is what I dreamed about, but win lose or draw, it's not going to define me one way or the other," he said. "I feel like I've grown so much as a person over the last couple years that I see a bigger perspective in life than having to sell my soul to go win a Cup championship. I'm going to give 1,000 percent out on that race track and drive as hard as I've ever driven, but we're just going to see where the chips fall."