He’s challenging Jimmie Johnson for the season championship.
Hamlin sits within six points coming into today’s Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the 2.66-mile-wide Yahtzee cup for NASCAR’s dice.
Johnson, who has won the past four Sprint Cup titles, could crash. It happens a lot around here.
Or Hamlin could finish just enough ahead to take the lead with three races to go in the Chase for the Championship. He won a week ago at Martinsville, finishing just four spots ahead of Johnson, and it was enough to trim 35 points off Johnson’s lead.
So yes, Johnson has real competition, and can’t you just feel the greater air flow coursing through NASCAR’s proverbial carburetor?
Indeed, NASCAR has to be breathing relief.
The sport’s top heads and some from ESPN huddled two weeks ago to brainstorm about plummeting ratings and attendance.
A cascade of TV biz logic flowed forth.
They talked about the move from ABC to ESPN, which has fewer viewers.
They poured over the decision to move most races to 1 p.m. ET on Sundays, a move that brings consistency but puts NASCAR head-to-head with the NFL.
They bandied about different promotion ideas.
Marketing folks love to think they can talk anybody into anything.
All of that stuff no doubt impacts NASCAR’s handling around the market place, but this wasn’t the crowd to discuss the real issue publicly.
No NASCAR or ESPN exec wants to say that Johnson’s dominance and dullness suck sizzle from the sport, and they don’t want to come off as rooting against a driver.
Let alone one of the top drivers for the top team, Hendrick Motorsports.
But the hard truth is that today’s NASCAR fans love dynasties only when they come with the name Earnhardt.
If one driver is to dominate, fans want guys not named Kyle Busch who beat and bang their way to the front.
Fans don’t want smooth racing technicians with the best equipment money can buy and no-drama personalities.
Johnson with beard looks more like the toast of beer-can fans, but he still drives and sounds like the perfect android produced by today’s corporate NASCAR machine.
He’s still the ultimate system driver milking the Chase, a NASCAR sort-of-playoff that seems built for him.
So he needs real competition.
NASCAR and its fans need for him to have real competition, and Hamlin is bringing it.
Not that Hamlin comes off as much different from Johnson.
Hamlin brings none of the scruff-and-tumble stuff that appeals to the Earnhardt crowd, but he brings competition.
Real competition for the championship comes just when NASCAR needs something besides a “have-at-it” slogan and believable rivalries to signal a return to hey days.
A six-point lead coming into Talladega? Now, that’s fresh air.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.