Hamlin eager to take on leadership role

With Tony Stewart's departure, 28-year-old Denny Hamlin, left, is now the elder statesman at Joe Gibbs Racing. Teammate Kyle Busch, right, is 23. AP Photo/Russ Hamilton, Jr.

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- Denny Hamlin wasn't happy. Actually, he was furious. His engine had blown six laps from the finish in the August race at Michigan International Speedway, resulting in a 39th-place finish that dropped him to 12th in the Sprint Cup standings.

He publicly criticized the Joe Gibbs Racing engine department, saying they were far behind top teams such as Hendrick Motorsports. He attacked his pit crew, blaming their inconsistency for putting him on the bubble of making the playoffs with three races before the 12-driver field was set.

"We just make stupid choices," Hamlin said after the race. "We can't keep our cars together. We have dash malfunctions, motors breaking. At this point, we don't even deserve to be in the Chase."

Fast forward to this past week's media tour at JGR's Cornelius, N.C., shop. Hamlin was relaxed and happy. He sang praises about his team and the prospects for 2009. He talked with passion about how the economy has affected fans and spoke of a plan to purchase tickets for each race and give them to people who registered on his Web site.

"I've got to tell you, Denny, to me, really, really has matured," team owner Joe Gibbs said.

Most agree the maturity began at Michigan. The public tirade didn't sit well with crew chief Mike Ford, crew members or anybody within the organization. They let the driver know how they felt through a series of heated discussions.

The Hamlin who had taken success for granted after an amazing 2006 rookie season in which he finished third in points realized it was time to grow up.

He apparently did.

He began focusing on ways to help not only his team, but the entire organization. He started filling the leadership void left behind by Tony Stewart, who is starting a new chapter in his career as a driver/owner at Stewart-Haas Racing.

You almost hear the change in his voice.

"It's just a few reality checks here and there," Hamlin said.

The reality was sometimes you have to experience the lows in life to steer you in the right direction.

"So to me, that is the point where until you hit the floor and stand back up, you're not going to move anywhere and be able to share an experience," Ford said.

The floor came at Michigan.

"I want to tell you, that was a tough week," Ford said. "We had some double throwdown and not so friendly meetings. The next couple of weeks were very difficult, but we backed it up with three straight thirds.

"That's what pushed us into making the Chase. From that, a lot of lessons have been learned all around. Communication has been better."

Now when Ford and Hamlin talk they are on the same level, able to relate because both understand what it means to go through hard times. Ford hit rock bottom in 2005 when he was let go after being made the scapegoat for many of the problems at then-Robert Yates Racing.

"We've been able to talk more than we have the last couple of years now," Ford said.

Stewart doesn't see a lot of Hamlin now, but noticed a difference after the Michigan race.

"It's not a phase that most of us haven't gone through at some point," the two-time Cup champion said. "There's going to be a day when you're mad at your team and you say something about it and realize how it affects everybody.

"That's what happened with Denny. He realized after he said it and was around his guys how much it affected them not only at the racetrack, but away from the racetrack."

Tough choice?

Ford looked to his right at the stable of JGR's Cup drivers, and there was Joey Logano, the 18-year-old phenom who was moved into NASCAR's premier series a year earlier than planned because of Stewart's unexpected departure. Beside him was Kyle Busch, the 23-year-old driver nicknamed "Rowdy, Wild Thing" and "Shrub."

Then there was Hamlin, the elder statesman at 28.

Ford laughed. Asked if he would have picked Hamlin as the most mature of the three this time a year ago, he laughed again.

"No, I would not have," he said.

Hamlin admits the Michigan race was life-changing. He apologized publicly for his remarks the following weekend at Bristol. He also credits the economy for giving him a reality check.

The sport changes you. You don't want to change, but it does change you.

-- Denny Hamlin

"I look around and say, 'Well, my life hasn't changed that much. How many of the race fans have had their lives changed in the last year or so because of fuel prices, anything like that?'" Hamlin said.

He genuinely feels the pain of the race fan, recalling the tough economic times his family went through to put him in this position. His parents mortgaged their home several times, sold cars, let bills slide and stayed on the brink of bankruptcy to keep him on the track.

In 2004, at the age of 24, their investment paid off when Hamlin landed a part-time ride in the Truck Series. Two years later, he started one of the best rookie seasons of all time with a victory in the Budweiser Shootout. He went on to win two races, three poles and make the Chase.

"I would say that first year was pretty dadgum special for him," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said. "The second year he pushed too hard in the Chase and made some mistakes."

The mistakes turned into pressure to perform. With pressure came demands on Hamlin that admittedly changed him.

"In a year and a half he goes from maybe not even driving anything to finishing third in the Cup series," Ford said. "In his mind, this wasn't too hard. Then you go to the next year and all of a sudden things you think are major issues but really aren't major issues [are compounded] by having negative comments or comments that are taken negatively.

"Then you feel the world is stacked against you. Then you have to go into seclusion to find out what's what."

Hamlin hopes his life experience will help Logano. He's taken a hands-on approach to helping the teenage sensation with matters on and off the track.

"The sport changes you," Hamlin said. "You don't want to change, but it does change you. You need to value your time a little bit more, and he'll realize that. It's all about staying focused.

"And you can't take things for granted. That's one thing I did learn from early."

Fill 'er up

Hamlin was a bit perplexed when he pulled his Range Rover up to the gas pump a month ago.

"I [didn't] even know how to open up the gas cap," he said.

It had been 10 months since Hamlin had put gas in one of his vehicles. He has somebody at his palatial home on Lake Norman who does that. But as he thought about all the other people who don't have it so lucky, he experienced a new sense of appreciation for fans who have to choose between buying a ticket to a race or filling up their car.

So he came up with a plan to buy tickets and give them away.

"Anything we can do to fuel their fire to come to these races is going to be a plus," Hamlin said. "If I can get them there for free, then that's what I'm going to do."

This time a year ago, Hamlin was a bit more selfish in his thinking. He didn't truly appreciate the value of teamwork.

Then came Michigan.

"I saw kind of a different Denny after that," Joe Gibbs said. "Sometimes when things happen we disappoint ourselves, we learn from it. I thought he learned from it."

The newfound maturity came at the perfect time with Logano coming into the fold and Stewart leaving. Ford believes it could make Hamlin even more of a threat on the track.

"From that point, and some strong meetings, that was the point where he was humbled and started to figure things out," he said, referring to the Michigan race. "When emotions are out on the table, those are life-changing moments.

"I think the eyes are open. I see him maturing personally as well. You hear a lot of negativity and things. People grow. I'm glad to see him grow."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.