Hamlin's Home to Sew Up Spot in Chase

Friday, September 8th 2006, 7:02 am
By: News On 6

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Denny Hamlin is seventh in the Nextel Cup driver's standings and coming home to Richmond hoping to secure his spot in NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

He will make the Chase for the championship if he finishes at least 16th Saturday night in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400, even if Kasey Kahne wins the race and leads the most laps in his last-chance effort to get one of the 10 spots in the field.

Whatever happens, Hamlin almost feels as if he's already won.

``It's nerve-racking, but it's good that we even have a chance to be in,'' he said Thursday. ``We don't necessarily feel like we have to prove anything else this year. We just are going to go out there and try to do what we know we're capable of.''

This year, the driver and his Joe Gibbs Racing team have shown plenty.

Hamlin swept the Nextel Cup races at Pocono Raceway, finished in the top five on two other occasions and in the top 10 in more than half of the 25 races run.

He also comes back to Richmond having finished second here in May, then the best start of his career, and with a week full of obligations as an emerging local star.

On Thursday, Hamlin made one stop at Children's Hospital of Richmond, where he raced remote-control cars with patients, signed autographs, posed for pictures and accepted a special helmet designed by the children to wear in Saturday's race.

He wore the same helmet in the spring, when his appearance at the hospital had to be postponed because of an injury. After Thursday's visit, he said he's still getting accustomed to the way people respond to him because of how he drives a race car.

Then again, he said, ``I was feeling that same way just a couple of years ago.''

Fame has come quickly at home for the driver who earned his chance to be Tony Stewart's teammate during a seven-race audition at the end of last season. He made the most of it, winning a pole position and finishing in the top 10 three times, and has continued to build a resume of consistency this year.

In the first 25 races, he's only failed to finish once.

``It happened so fast, it almost took me and everyone else by surprise,'' Hamlin said.

After his close second on Richmond's .75-mile oval in the spring, Hamlin said his position in the points race gives him a different perspective this visit, but the same goal.

``We're still going to go out there and try to win the race if we can,'' he said. ``We've got our eyes on our goal; we've just to be sure we can get it done.''