After being picked in the preseason as the golden boy to stop Johnson’s run, adversity has been thrown at him this season, and he’s never faltered.
He’s never doubted himself either. Besides, he’s had plenty of other people doing that for him.
Hamlin has just kept his head down doing what he knew he could do for the last few seasons.
“I’ve really felt like over the last couple of years I’ve had the potential to run with (Jimmie Johnson) and whoever might be the championship contender,” Hamlin said. “It’s been a few years coming I feel like that we’ve had these opportunities, it’s just this has been the first year that we’ve put it all together.”
And just like Johnson has put together spectacular runs in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, Hamlin has, too, putting himself in the position he is now — as close as anybody has come in the past five years to putting a halt to Johnson’s dominance.
Hamlin will start today’s AMP Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway just six points behind Johnson, marking the closest the Chase has been this late in the season.
It’s not the best case scenario, but it is his. And he doesn’t mind too much.
“Obviously, we’d love to have a huge lead right now,” he said. “I think given how I’ve raced and things like that over the course of this Chase so far, this is about the best-case scenario for us.
“I like being behind and chasing a guy. I do not like playing defense at all.”
Playing catch-up is how Hamlin made it into this Chase.
His August took a horrible turn at Watkins Glen where he finished 37th, kicking off a string of disappointing finishes. In three of the next four races he was no better than 34th, including a dead-last finish at Atlanta with engine problems.
But after that, he’s been lights out.
Hamlin won at Richmond to grab the top spot for the Chase and start a string of finishes where he’s done no worse than 12th.
Even little slumps like that caused people to wonder whether or not this would just be another near-miss for the driver that burst onto the scene in 2006.
In his first full season in Sprint Cup racing, he finished third in the points causing many to label him as the next great thing.
Since then, though, he’s been good — points finishes of 12, 8 and 5 — but never the driver that he wanted to be.
But questions of his ability are nothing new. Especially this year.
“It’s been a long season of ups and downs,” he said, “and all that has obviously given us some good fuel.”
There were small questions before the season started when he tore the ACL in his left leg playing a game of pick-up basketball.
He chose to tough it out, then wound up having to have surgery, and questions sprung up then, too. Hamlin said he knew better than to question himself, he hadn’t even gotten to his warming up period yet.
“When I decided to get (the surgery) done, I was 20th or so in points,” he said. “I knew it was too early to panic because our team never really runs good until five or six races into the season.
“I knew our performance, every time we get to the spring Martinsville race, always seems to turn at that point. … obviously winning two weeks after the surgery, I knew it was not going to be an issue.”
But last week, Hamlin was perhaps the most vocal toward his critics.
Going into Martinsville, some called Johnson’s fifth straight title inevitable. Hamlin went out and won the race from the pole, and sent a message to the trophy engravers and naysayers.
“Who said it was over?” he said with the first words of the postrace press conference. “Told you it wasn’t over.”
And just like he knew it wasn’t then, he knows it’s too quick to celebrate what he’s done to this point. Especially at Talladega Superspeedway.
The track known for its big wrecks can jumble the field — and the standings — in the blink of an eye.
In addition to Johnson and Hamlin, Kevin Harvick stands 62 points behind Johnson at a track where he’s shown he’s a force to be reckoned with, winning two of this season’s past three restrictor plate races.
“I think that all three drivers that are in contention right now have four really good race tracks,” Johnson said. “Especially the final three for all three teams.”
Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3570.