blank 04/14/12 11:03AM Denny Hamlin, NASCAR

Hamlin optimistic about No. 11 team's growth

By Dave Rodman, NASCAR.COM
April 13, 2012 6:41 PM, EDT

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Two years ago, Denny Hamlin swept both Sprint Cup Series events at Texas Motor Speedway before almost winning the 2010 series championship.

That was Hamlin's career pinnacle, but stunningly it led to the worst year of his career in 2011.

Denny Hamlin (Getty Images)
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If we were a 10 in 2010 and we were zero last year, just using that scale, I'd say that we're like a five to six right now. We're getting there, though. Every week our stuff is getting better and better.

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-- DENNY HAMLIN

And so Friday afternoon, even though Hamlin admitted earlier in the day his Joe Gibbs Racing team was currently only a little more than half as good as the outfit that won a league-leading eight races in 2010, he said he was more than satisfied with his team's progress.

"If we were a 10 in 2010 and we were zero last year, just using that scale, I'd say that we're like a five to six right now," Hamlin said. "We're heading ... We're not like we were last year by any means. We're better, but we're not to our 2010 form as far as the speed of our cars and things like that.

"We're getting there, though. Every week our stuff is getting better and better. I think that we are timing this year pretty well right now. I think that we're going to start to run well here in these next couple months."

In Friday's 90-minute final practice, Hamlin proved he might be a threat in Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500. Hamlin began the session in the top five and sat seventh when it was complete, after running 55 laps.

Trevor Bayne, who won his first career Nationwide Series race here last fall, was quickest in final practice, leading Ford teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, Toyota's Clint Bowyer and Dodge driver AJ Allmendinger.

For Hamlin, he said his next stage of proof would come in qualifying later Friday afternoon.

"There's a lot of things I need to work on," Hamlin said. "Qualifying, every time I come to this place, I look at our past notes and I say 'I need to qualify better.' Qualifying in the top 10 this weekend will be crucial for us -- track position does mean so much.

"This track, it seems like in particular, you can pass when it's sunny. When it's night time, it's harder to pass because the speeds are so high [so] track position means a lot. I got to qualify better. And, really what we need to work on is just getting more speed out of our cars. We know what we need to work on -- it takes some time to get it done."

Hamlin, who has eight top-10 finishes in 13 career Texas starts, said there's a simple explanation for why he's done well on the fast, 1.5-mile track.

"It's just something about this track," Hamlin said. "I think the transition to the corners suits my driving style a little bit better. It's not the big jump off into the corner like at Dover or Charlotte or tracks like that.

"The transition to the banking is slow and progressive and I think I particularly like that a little bit more. You go to a track and you have success and you have a little more confidence every time you go back."

And in the end, Hamlin said he was confident in what he's accomplished already this season, including a win at Phoenix, and that takes a lot of pressure away.

"We can [afford a bad finish], we have a win, we're in the top 10 in points, so we can," Hamlin said. "I hate to say you can afford to have a bad race, but it's not going to kill our championship hopes, I don't think.

"In our position, you either win or you don't as far as bonus points are concerned. If you feel like you can be in the top 10 in points, then really the only thing that matters is the wins to carry for the bonuses for the Chase. For us, second is not much different than 20th when you leave this place."

Final practice was quiet, with the exception of an early incident.

Tony Stewart, the most recent Texas race winner, suffered a setback in the opening minutes of Happy Hour when his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet scuffed the wall with its right side on his fourth lap on the race track.

Stewart, who was 29th on the time sheet after three laps, drove back to the garage, but crew chief Steve Addington had called for his crew to pull out its backup car even before practice resumed.

Stewart hit the track in his backup car 50 minutes into practice. He immediately made an 11-lap run, saying the balance of the car was "not too bad," before he pitted for Addington to start making adjustments.

Stewart, who ended up 35th on the rundown after turning 40 laps in all, made three additional race runs of four, 12 and 10 laps before he returned to the garage for the last time.

His crew planned to put its primary engine into the backup car so Stewart could retain his qualifying position.

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