Posted: Monday June 14, 2010 11:02AM ; Updated: Monday June 14, 2010 1:04PM
Bruce Martin
Bruce Martin>INSIDE RACING

Hamlin's winning streak could spoil Johnson's 'Drive for Five'

Story Highlights

Denny Hamlin notched his fifth series victory and 13th career win at Michigan

Hamlin's command of the spoiler could prove beneficial for the Chase

After a tumultuous race at Pocono, Joey Logano managed a win at Kentucky

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With five wins in 2010 under his belt, Denny Hamlin is emerging as a top threat to Jimmie Johnson and his bid to win five straight championships.
Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR

MOORESVILLE, North Carolina -- If Denny Hamlin goes on to become the man who finally derails Jimmie Johnson's "Drive for Five" NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, one thing will be certain: To the victor go the spoilers.

No other driver in the Cup series has benefited more from NASCAR's decision to take off the rear wing and replace it with the traditional rear spoiler than Hamlin. All of his series-high five victories have come since the switch right before the March 29 contest at Martinsville Speedway.

Hamlin's Michigan victory was his second-straight and 13th career win. It's an impressive leap considering that prior to the removal of the rear wing, Hamlin's best finish was 17th in the season-opening Daytona 500, coming after he tore an ACL while playing basketball. Finishes of 29th at Fontana, 19th at Las Vegas, 21st at Atlanta and 19th at Bristol gave little indication he would emerge as a serious threat for the title. But when the wing was removed, Hamlin took flight.

A victory at Martinsville came just a few days before he had knee surgery. A brief setback with a 30th-place finish at Phoenix came before Hamlin rallied to a win at Texas, finish fourth at Talladega, 11th at Richmond and land a Mother's Day trip to Victory Lane at Darlington. Since then, Hamlin has finished lower than fourth just once, 18th in the Coca-Cola 600.

It's quickly become apparent that Hamlin's No. 11 team at Joe Gibbs Racing has found the right setup with the spoiler change. On Sunday, he led four times for 123 laps. There was little Kasey Kahne could do other than follow Hamlin's rear bumper across the finish line at the end of the race.

Of course, there is plenty of time for another driver to catch up to Hamlin in race wins as Johnson is nipping at his heels with three checkered flags and the Busch brothers have two apiece.

And given that Hamlin has never won on a road course, his winning streak could come to a screeching halt at Sonoma, Calif. But a brief road course detour won't shake Hamlin's confidence as he is convinced that the "best is yet to come."

"I think there are some aspects of our race team that can get better," he said. "I think our pit crew has definitely stepped up. I feel like my communication with Mike [Ford] has stepped up. What I'm telling Mike and them applying to the race car has gotten better. Where is the limit on it? I feel like each week that we show up, we just set our bar a little bit higher than it was the week before.

"You go to Pocono, everyone expects us to win. They jot us down, engrave the trophy. There's a lot of effort that gets put into that. It's not as easy as it looks. The way we're performing now goes back six months, a year from now. We've worked very, very hard to get to this spot right now. To show up the way we did on Friday and know we just kept battling. Literally, I looked at the notes on how many things we changed right here before race day, and I was a skeptic. When you got faith in a guy like Mike to make the right decisions, it's easy to do my job."

And his crew chief certainly thinks his team is only going to get better, largely because the Hamlin resurgence actually began toward the end of 2009.

"Towards the end of last season, where I said the best is yet to come, I strongly felt that way because towards the end of last season we closed out the season strong," Ford said. "I knew that was a catalyst to really turn up the team, to get a little bit more out of everyone. Denny goes down with his knee injury. He comes back, obviously not 100 percent. The team steps up. We narrow the gap to try to pick him up knowing he's not going to be there, and we start winning races, even with a driver that is not 100 percent.

"Now that he's coming back healthier each week, we're winning more and more. I simply think that's the catalyst for us to move forward. It's easier when the morale is high to get a little bit more out of your guys. Our benchmark is ourselves and we're just trying to work on that."

And with Hamlin and his team setting the bar so high, maybe the sport has finally found somebody who can stop Johnson's streak of winning five-straight Cup titles. It also might be good to bring NASCAR back to its roots, in a driver some fans can better relate to.

"Now it's just show up and, hey, we can win," Hamlin said. "That to me is just a feeling I don't think we've ever had before. I haven't had it before."

BEST WAY TO QUIET DOWN DAD? WIN ANOTHER RACE AT KENTUCKY

Joey Logano may have found a way to tranquilize his dad -- the tempestuous, irate Tom Logano. The secret? Win on race day, which he did with his third-straight victory at Kentucky.

Logano started Saturday night's race on the pole and led five times for 106 laps. But he had to endure 10 caution periods for a track-record 54 laps before defeating Carl Edwards by just 0.662 seconds -- the fourth-closest Nationwide Series finish in the 11-year history of Kentucky Speedway.

"I don't know what feels better -- going three-for-three [at Kentucky Speedway] or finally getting a win this year," Logano said. "We've had quite a few stolen from us, and Carl was running hard there at the end. I thought, 'man, I don't want to lose another one this way.

"They definitely weren't lying when they said it will feel that much better when you do win because this probably feels better than the other wins I've had here. This is awesome. It's cool for Kentucky. I would have never thought two for two and now three for three, poles and wins -- that's impressive."

It was just one week earlier that Logano was at the center of controversy when his father, Tom, encouraged his son to go after Kevin Harvick in pit lane. This was in retaliation to a late-race incident at Pocono in which Harvick tapped Logano's Toyota and sent it into the wall.

Tom Logano drew a tremendous amount of criticism for his role at Pocono, including some strong words from Harvick. The elder Logano was at Kentucky but did not attend the Michigan race on Sunday.

"His father has no place in this," Harvick said. "His father needs to stick back and act like all of the rest of the dads, and be happy that his kid's here. This isn't Little League baseball anymore. He just needs to stay away and act like a 50-year-old man, or however old he is.

"I tried to break the ice once and help him with his dad and he laughed at me, and now look at where he's at."

OH CANADA! FOR LEWIS HAMILTON

With his victory in Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Lewis Hamilton of Team McLaren has taken over the lead in the Formula One World Championship standings. Hamilton finished ahead of teammate Jenson Button, as Ferrari's Fernando Alonso came in third.

Hamilton entered the race third in the standings and now has a three-point lead over Button.

"It is one of the toughest races so far," said Hamilton. "It's another one-two and Jenson did an incredible job. I am very happy and proud of the team. This is a special day for me because I obviously won my first Grand Prix here, so to come back and do that three years later is a real pleasure."

McLaren has the last two F1 World Champions on the team with Hamilton winning in 2008 and Button last year, when he was with the Brawn team, now known as Mercedes F1.

"It was a very difficult race," Button said. "The tires are so important and you are never sure if you are looking after them enough. It was a great race, really enjoyable -- you had to think about every situation."

From 2000 to 2007, Formula One fans in the United States had a chance to watch the pinnacle of international racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But since the United States Grand Prix was dropped from the schedule in 2008, the Canadian Grand Prix is the closest that F1 gets to competing in the United States, at least for now, making it one of the most important races of the weekend.

RAHAL FILLS IN FOR INJURED CONWAY AT IOWA INDYCAR RACE

Graham Rahal will drive for his third IndyCar Series team this season when he takes over for the injured Mike Conway at Sunday's Iowa Corn 250. Rahal, who drove in three races for Sarah Fisher Racing and in the Indianapolis 500 for Rahal Letterman Racing, joins Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in what is so far a one-race effort.

Conway was injured in a spectacular crash on the next-to-last lap of this year's Indianapolis 500. He slammed into a slowing car driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, that had run out of fuel. The collision launched Conway's car into the catch-fence. An injured Conway had surgery that night to repair fractures to his lower left leg. Additionally, Conway was fitted for a back brace, which he will wear for three months, preventing him from racing.

At 21, Rahal was an obvious choice to take over the ride for Conway. Rahal is certainly a driver the IZOD IndyCar Series needs to have in its lineup on a more regular basis.

"Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has clearly done an impressive job this season and I really have to thank Robbie Buhl, Dennis Reinbold (team co-owners), the team, and Dad's Root Beer for this opportunity to compete in Iowa," Rahal said. "I also want to wish Mike Conway a quick recovery and hopefully we can bring home a good result for him."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I feel happy. I'm ready to go home. I've got a buddy that's got a birthday tomorrow and drink some beer and have a good time. It'll be a good day." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. after finishing seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK, II -- THE "I DON'T ALWAYS LIKE WHAT I SEE" EDITION

"I think racing has changed. Tony Stewart is one of my favorite people and he told you what he thought and what he felt. The racing is changing. Years ago it didn't used to be that way. But it is this way today and you will certainly see more of that in the future; not less. And in some ways I'm glad I'm 51 and not 31 because I'm going to enjoy watching these things in the future instead of dragging them in on the hook." -- Mark Martin on how NASCAR racing has changed recently.

WHAT I'M LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS WEEK

Iowa Speedway has become the IZOD IndyCar Series' "Field of Dreams." I can almost hear the faint whispers coming from the cornfields "If you build it; they will come." The short track epitomizes grassroots racing, and while it may have less than 40,000 seats, its stands are always packed. The race fans who come out have a good grasp on IndyCar, knowing who Raphael Matos and Vitor Meira are instead of just coming out to see Danica and Helio. I'm a big believer in that the series needs to have races in areas where it can be the big show rather than competing at tracks that also host the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

 
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