Hamlin aims to steal spotlight from Burton at Martinsville

Updated: October 21, 2006, 7:51 PM ET
SportsTicker

MARTINSVILLE, Virginia -- Denny Hamlin would like to steal some of the attention from the hometown favorite at Martinsville Speedway.

The most outstanding rookie on the Nextel Cup circuit, Hamlin will duel fellow Virginian and series points leader Jeff Burton in Sunday's NASCAR Nextel Cup Subway 500.

A native from Chesterfield, Virginia and the only rookie to qualify for this year's "Chase for the Championship," Hamlin enters the grueling 500-lap short-track race sixth in the standings, 137 points behind Burton.

"I think we're going to be pretty good," Hamlin said. "We're really confident about it. This is a race track that I really feel comfortable at. I've got a lot of laps around here, so it's good to be back to pretty much my second home."

Perhaps Hamlin is simply too new in the sport and too young to realize that he should be feeling the typical pressure involved in "The Chase."

"We still feel like we do have a shot at the title," he said. "We're less than 100 points out of second. It just takes one bad run by those guys, or anything can happen.

"We're definitely not counting ourselves out, but I think there was more pressure just to get in (The Chase). Because for us, we knew if we got in it, the worse we're going to be is 10th."

But Hamlin is running out of time to put some real pressure on Burton, who hails from South Boston, Virginia. There are just five Chase races remaining, and the series champion will be crowned in a little over a month.

"For me, I like the position I'm in," Hamlin said. "In the grand scheme of things, I don't like having to make up points. But if there's any track that I'd like to have that mentality, it's here.

"It's hard to win a race being on the conservative side and worrying about not losing points. So I like being the aggressor in this situation. To me, that gives me an upper hand on someone like Burton."

Hamlin starts third in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo for Joe Gibbs Racing while Burton starts 28th in a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Kurt Busch, who failed to qualify for "The Chase," starts on the pole in a Dodge Charger for Penske Racing. Jeff Gordon, a seven-time winner here, starts second but is 216 points out of the lead.

"Denny is an extremely talented guy," said Gordon, a four-time series champion entered the sport as a "child prodigy" in 1992. "He's impressed me on many different occasions."

One of those occasions came in this year's spring race at the .526-mile, paperclip-shaped Martinsville Speedway. Even though Hamlin finished 37th, the 25-year-old rookie was a leading contender before crashing on lap 307.

A more representative race for Hamlin was at Martinsville last fall, when he started fifth and finished eighth.

"He probably impressed me the most here at this race earlier this year," Gordon said. "I think Martinsville is one of the trickiest tracks to learn and be fast at and be consistent throughout a day. I followed him and ran with him quite a bit here the last race. I thought he was very impressive."

Hamlin takes pride in running well in front of the home crowd at both Martinsville and Richmond. He started seventh and finished second at Richmond in May. The return trip in September saw Hamlin on the pole before he finished 15th.

"I really feel like I run better here than I do at Richmond," Hamlin said. "Richmond's definitely a special track to me for certain reasons, but we really do run well there and this track as well."

This was a double-duty weekend for Hamlin, who also competed in Saturday's Craftsman Truck Series Kroger 200, starting 19th and finishing eighth.

"I've run here every year since 2000 in some kind of automobile, whether it is a late model or truck or Busch or anything," Hamlin said. "I definitely have a comfort level here that I don't have at any other race track."

With the preliminary out of the way, Hamlin now sets his sights on Sunday's short-track battle.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index