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Denny Hamlin figures it's time to start winning again, but can he handle Harvick and the Roush guys?

  Denny Hamlin: ready to rumble (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   FONTANA, Calif.

   Denny Hamlin? He and crew chief Mike Ford just wanted to get through these first three playoff races unscathed, and then they figured to start moving.
   Well, since winning Richmond a month ago, Hamlin and Ford logged that second at Loudon, N.H., a ninth at Dover, Del., and a ragged 12th in Kansas City.

   Assuming he can stay clear of any incidents his hard-driving teammate Kyle Busch, or anyone else on grid, might get into Sunday...
   "I don't know why here lately everyone who gets spun on accident feels they need to go out there and really turn guys around," Hamlin says. 
    "Three or four years ago when guys got spun, there really was no immediate retaliation.  It was a phone call the next day, and then you work it out from there. 
    "Now it seems guys feel it's their responsibility to even the score right away."
    Hamlin, who lost the Sprint Cup tour points lead to fast-closing Jimmie Johnson a week ago, starts deep in the field in Sunday's California Pepsi 400. But he insists he can win. And this track is similar to Michigan, where Hamlin won in June (and then got docked $50,000 by NASCAR for complaining about late-race cautions) and where he finished a strong second to Kevin Harvick in August.
   "All these tracks from here on out are good tracks for us," Hamlin says.  "There's really no weak spot the next four to six weeks. 
   "We made it past the big hurdles, and we only lost 18 points to Jimmie the last three races.
   "Now it's time to go out there and show why we are in this position."
   The man to beat Sunday is probably Harvick, who had the best car back in the spring. But he too is deep in the field for the 12 noon PT (3 p.m. ET) start.
   But the sudden resurgence of the Jack Roush gang is one of the hot stories right now. So keep an eye on Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, as well as some of Robbie Loomis' Ford men – Elliott Sadler is on the front this weekend, and Kasey Kahne is right up front too.
    Will there be some odd twists in this playoff run, as happened at Kansas, when David Reutimann and Busch got into it, Busch losing about 60 points in the mess?
   "I didn't think what happened last week was necessary," Hamlin says. "Things could have been talked out. 
    "(But) the way retaliation works has changed over the last few years.
    "It's tough for me to swallow when someone does take someone out intentionally when someone else made a mistake.  We're all race car drivers, we're all on the edge at all times...and when someone makes a mistake, why didn't he deserve to get a break?
  "We're in the sport of racing, and guys are going to bump into each other. I just think drivers react different to it now than what they used to.
    "If these guys (who are not in the chase, like Reutimann) want to go out there and change how the chase ends up, they can definitely do that.
   "If Kyle wasn't my teammate and David was, I would still have a tough time finding full fault in Kyle, because David's car looked like it really checked up quick." 
    Hamlin just wants to keep his own nose clean. That Saturday tussle with Harvick, over the Clint  Bowyer Loudon controversy, caught Hamlin's attention.
   "I have a pretty good record of not running into guys," Hamlin points out.
    "If someone feels it's their job to even the score, then that's on them.  It all comes full-circle. We're all racing each other in a lot of races, and everyone knows you reap what you sow."
    Well, what about all that between Hamlin and Brad Keselowski?
   "I gave ample opportunity for Brad to apologize," Hamlin says. "I actually got wrecked three or four times in a row before I decided to go out and retaliate myself, and saying I was going to do it. 
    "That was a little bit different.
    "It's hard for me to say it without being a hypocrite, because obviously I did retaliate against Brad. Butt I gave Brad a lot of chances to make that up.
    "I just don't agree with paying back somebody for an isolated incident. It's not the best character thing to do."
    One aspect worth considering: the Reutimann-Busch tit-for-tat came at a high-speed big track, and Busch pointed out he could easily have been flipped on his roof, like Keselowski was at Atlanta.
   Retaliation on big, fast tracks, rather than short tracks?  What's that all about?
   "Because there's more space, and less chance another car is going to get involved, I think that's why guys are probably doing it," Hamlin says.
   "Short tracks -- you try to do it on restarts, or something, and you collect six guys...and the next thing you know you've got six guys ticked off at you."
   Playing it all smart, that's what Hamlin has tried to do this whole season. He came into the year as one of the big favorites for the title, but got off to a slow start, then caught fire, then got cold, and now he's trying to keep everything in perspective.
     "You just have to be patient enough to wait those things out, and hope you capitalize the most on your bad day...and hopefully our bad day was last week at Kansas," Hamlin says.
    In this championship run "Your head is your own worst enemy.....especially for me," Hamlin frets. "I feel like that is my own worst enemy at times. 
    "Your head really gets into it at times. But you have to just stay focused. 
     "The more pressure you put on yourself – when you go out here and you're not having fun by points racing – that's when you really go downhill. 
    "You have to enjoy the aspect of the racing itself."


   Daytona's new asphalt will get its first major workout during a three-day January test, the 20th through the 22nd.
   But that doesn't appear to give Goodyear much wiggle room in designing a tire for the new surface.
   Daytona execs have pointed to January 1st as when the new asphalt will be ready for tire testing; and that testing will have to include not only Goodyear but also the tire makers for the 24 Hours, which is set for Jan. 29th.
   NASCAR dropped testing at its tour tracks two years ago, ostensibly as a cost-cutting measure. However team owners say that ban has served only to increase the cost of other types of testing, which one owner says is now three times as expensive, with computers and all, as the old at-track testing program.
   NASCAR officials have been considering opening up testing a little bit next season, perhaps with teams getting 10 'vouchers' good for one-day tests at tour tracks a day ahead of when that track opens for its weekend Cup racing.
   The Daytona tests, of the first repaving there since 1978, will include Friday night and Saturday night driver Fan Fests.
   The season-opening Daytona 500 is Feb. 20th.


   Eyes wide open (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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