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Rapid rise

Denny Hamlin cut a quick path to his ride in the 11 car

Posted: Thursday April 20, 2006 1:55PM; Updated: Thursday April 20, 2006 5:41PM
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Will Danny Hamlin win a Cup title? Probably not this year ... but soon.
Will Danny Hamlin win a Cup title? Probably not this year ... but soon.
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Denny Hamlin isn't exactly a racing rags-to-riches story. But he has come very far, very fast.

"I don't know of anybody," he says proudly, "who has come from local short-track racing to Nextel Cup in a year and a half. It just doesn't happen."

Hamlin didn't deliver a sponsor or buy his way in with family money. It could be said that he was in the right place at the right time, but that carries only a modicum of resonance.

Hamlin's rise came from turning heads every time he jumped to a new level, from Late Models to Craftsman Trucks to Busch to Cup. Hamlin did it in fewer races than any driver in recent memory, including Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart.

Hamlin didn't just go through the development process -- he sprinted like Secretariat at the Belmont. He's the personification of natural talent gripping a steering wheel.

"I made the best of every opportunity I got," he explains.

It seems now that it was Hamlin's destiny to become a Cup driver. Late in 2002, though, it seemed like destiny was looking in another direction.

Driving for a team owned and funded by his parents, Hamlin had won 10 races in NASCAR's Dodge Weekly Racing Series at Southampton (Va.) Motor Speedway. But the winning didn't result in a financial comfort level.

"It was really a struggle," Hamlin recalls. "It costs $1,000 a week for tires and entry fees and everything, and my parents didn't make more than $50- or $60,000 a year. We were hoping the winner's checks would get there in time to make the next race."

By October of that year, as he stood in a sign-up line at South Boston, Va., Hamlin figured it was going to be his last race, at least with the family team.

"There'd been mortgages taken out on the house," he says. "It was just too big a [financial] risk for us to keep going."

Meanwhile, Jim Dean, a late model owner from Manassas, Va., had heard of Hamlin's money problems. He approached Hamlin at the sign-up line and said he'd pay Hamlin's way to the next race. "I only want to race against the best," Dean told the driver.

But on the following Tuesday, Hamlin received an even bigger surprise from Dean. The car owner had split with his driver the day before and needed a new man behind the wheel that weekend. Hamlin took the job ... claimed the pole ... and won the race.