THOUGH he's winless this season, reigning Rookie of the Year Denny Hamlin isn't about to concede the Nextel Cup to Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports tandem who've combined for seven victories in the first 11 races. Why should he? The 26-year-old Hamlin is off to one of the strongest starts to a sophomore season in recent memory: After top 10 finishes in five of the last six races, he's fourth in the standings and, through 11 races, has led more laps (611) than any other driver except Gordon (674). "We feel we've had the better car more times than not," says Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief on the number 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevy. "It's a matter of time before Denny breaks through."
And to that end Ford is working to have the better pit crew as well. After two dropped lug nuts during a late pit stop at Darlington on May 13 cost Hamlin dearly—because of the delay he fell from first to 15th with 65 laps to go—Ford overhauled his crew. He replaced three of the seven members of Hamlin's over-the-wall gang and changed the assignments of two others. Both driver and chief say they had been discussing the moves for a while (there were similar mishaps at Martinsville and Phoenix earlier this season), but there can be little doubt that changes became more urgent following Hamlin's blunt postrace comments. "If we lose by 20, 30 points when it comes down to the championship," Hamlin said, after finishing second to Gordon at Darlington, "we know exactly where we lost it, and that's on pit road."
It's unusual for such criticism to be aired outside of the garage. And while Hamlin says he was merely venting, his remarks made it clear that he's no longer content to play the part of deferential rookie. "I'm slowly but surely trying to figure out the role I'm playing as a leader with this team," he says. "I wouldn't take back anything I said."
From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, May 28, 2007