As the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the championship passes its halfway point, it is starting to appear that it may be a three-man race.
Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson, not surprisingly, sits atop the point standings. Kevin Harvick sits 77 points behind, in third place.
Sandwiched between those two is Denny Hamlin. Hamlin currently sits just 41 points out of the lead and this weekend heads back to Martinsville, a track where he has to be considered the favorite.
Hamlin has wound up in victory lane three out of the last five times that the series has visited the famed half mile.
"We go there (Martinsville) with a great outlook. We're actually going to be bringing out a car that's a new car for Joe Gibbs Racing. So, we're a little nervous about that, but we are going out there expecting to lead the most laps and win the race," said Hamlin.
While some people would question the team's decision to bring a brand new race car when they already have a previous winning car sitting in the shop, Hamlin still exudes confidence.
"We just went to a new generation race car over the last two to three months, and we feel like it's better. And we are sticking to our guns," Hamlin said, adding, "We feel like everything we've done over the last two or three months has been better overall as far as speed. So we're just kind of going with it, and see if we can work it out."
Things have seemed to work out for Hamlin most of the season. After struggling through the first five races of the season, where he failed to post a top five finish, Hamlin then went on a tear.
Hamlin earned the victory at Martinsville in March, which started a streak that saw him reel off five wins in the next 10 races.
Hamlin was starting to look like the man that was going to end Johnson's impressive championship run, which came as a surprise to few, as Hamlin was the preseason favorite to dethrone the reigning champ.
When asked about the pressures of being the odds-on favorite to win a championship, Hamlin said, "I personally use it as motivation. I've expected myself to win a championship a couple of years ago, much less today in 2010. So, for myself, no one's going to put any more pressure on me than what I'm going to put on myself."
He also added that while last year his team's on-track performance was capable of winning the championship, his mindset wasn't completely right.
As for this year: "I think my mindset is a whole lot better this time around. Our performance is just as good as last year, so now it's going to be up to us to not make any mistakes. That's going to give us a chance to win at Homestead, hopefully," said Hamlin.
But before getting to Homestead and having a chance to win the championship, Hamlin knows that he needs to still be in contention after the next few weeks.
When asked about his current position in the standings, Hamlin responded, "I'm happy with it. I feel like I am within striking distance. I think it's going to depend on what happens in Talladega and this weekend as well. Talladega is such a wild card that it can go 100 points one way or the other. Of course we would like to go into there with a cushion, but unless Jimmie has a struggle in Martinsville, that's probably not going to happen."
So, while Hamlin may not be the current point leader, there is still plenty of reason for optimism. Five of Hamlin's 14 career wins have come on the season's final five tracks. More amazingly, 20 of his 59 career top fives have come on those same tracks. He has at least three career top fives at each of the remaining five racetracks.
But all the talk of championships can still wait a few weeks. For this week, the focus of Hamlin and the entire No. 11 team is on Martinsville and a race that they fully expect to win: "Whether it's been the new car or the old car, we've always had success there. I feel like I have a knack for that racetrack, and I feel like we always seem to prepare really good race cars for that track."
So, as the Sprint Cup Series makes its final trip of 2010 to Martinsville Speedway this weekend, don't be surprised to see a familiar face near the front of the pack. Denny Hamlin and winning at Martinsville seem to go hand in hand these days.
After all, this is a man who restarted ninth with 15 laps to go in March. Granted, he had four fresh tires, whereas no one in front of him did. He ultimately made a daring three wide pass on both Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth with two laps to go to ultimately take the checkered flag. Regardless, to get by that many cars in that short a period of time, on a track that small, is one gargantuan feat.
As is the tradition at Martinsville Speedway, the winning driver is presented with a brand new grandfather clock as his trophy. Denny Hamlin, in his short career, has already captured three of those clocks. It may be wise, in between now and the start of the race on Sunday, for Hamlin to start making room for a fourth.