Denny Hamlin turns to psychologist

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin said Tuesday he's been working with a well-known sports psychologist in an attempt to improve his attitude and outlook.

Hamlin has been in a miserable slump since the penultimate race of last season, when poor fuel mileage at Phoenix figured heavily in his failure to wrest the championship away from Jimmie Johnson. Although he was still the points leader heading into the final race of the year, he had a poor weekend and Johnson won his fifth consecutive title.

Many have speculated he's not been the same on or off the track since the Phoenix race, and Hamlin admitted Tuesday he struggled with the pressure of the championship race.

Now he's working with Bob Rotella, a noted psychologist who has worked with several PGA golfers over the years. Hamlin believes he's learned things from Rotella that could have made a difference last season.

"I've been working with a guy who has been working on my attitude and outlook," Hamlin said. "I feel like if I would have known then what I know now, about how to treat each weekend, having fun doing what I'm doing, then I would have been much better off."

Rotella has worked as a consultant for athletes in almost every professional sport, and Darren Clarke credited the psychologist after winning this year's British Open.

Hamlin was initially reluctant to elaborate on whom he was working with, but eventually revealed it was Rotella and he had been referred to him by team owner Joe Gibbs. He did not say how long he's been working with Rotella.

But he was in much better spirits Tuesday during an appearance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame than he's been in some time. He was loose and laughing, and acknowledged he's seemed distant and moody this year.

"You've got to understand, you could see me just walking through the garage and hang (my) head and be embarrassed," Hamlin said.

He was referring to what likely will go down as the worst season of his career. He's got just one victory and is ranked 12th in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. He also needed a strong final month of the regular season to earn a wild-card berth into the Chase.

It's a far cry from the driver who won eight races last season and took a 15-point lead over Johnson into the finale. A 14th-place finish at Homestead cost Hamlin the title, by 39 points to Johnson. No one has doubted that defeat was embarrassing for Hamlin and has been difficult for him to overcome.

He said Tuesday he didn't even enjoy his title hunt last year.

"I felt like last year I didn't have a whole lot of fun," Hamlin said. "I put so much pressure on myself to run a specific position every single race and I had a plan and executed. It almost worked, but I didn't have fun.

"When I get back to that situation, and, hopefully, it's next year, I'll be able to apply those things. I've got to treat each race as the same amount of importance as the previous one and the one that goes after that. I've talked to someone who is really, really smart and knows a lot about sports and how it works. Each race I've got to treat with the same importance. I can't build myself up to believe that one race is bigger than the next."

The start of the Chase two weeks ago gave him a fresh start, but a poor run in the opener at Chicago put him in a deep hole few thought he could recover from. His Joe Gibbs Racing team gambled on fuel last week at New Hampshire, and had it worked, Hamlin would have stolen a top-five finish that could have started his climb from the bottom of the Chase standings.

Instead, he ran out of gas, finished 29th and now trails leader Tony Stewart by a seemingly insurmountable 66 points. But he defended crew chief Mike Ford's strategy, and said Ford has been unfairly blamed for the No. 11 team's struggles this year.

"It's on him as much as it's on me, but he faces a lot of scrutiny, some of it unjust," Hamlin said. "It's just one of those years where you just can't get some momentum and get it rolling."

Now, perhaps because of advice he's received from Rotella, Hamlin said he's focused on getting his team turned around and back into Victory Lane.

"I am more motivated to win races now than I was if I was in the championship battle," he said. "I just want to go out and win at this point, and I feel like not having the pressure of a championship on my back will help me do that."