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MOTOR RACING

Hamlin is coming of age in a hurry

September 16, 2007|From the Associated Press

Denny Hamlin caught NASCAR by surprise last season, quietly winning two races and finishing third in the standings, the first rookie to make the Chase for the Championship.

This year, he has spoken out to force pit crew changes, refused to back down to teammate Tony Stewart and proclaimed himself a title contender. He also has spent nine weeks running second to Jeff Gordon in the points standings.

"The very first year, you are trying to gain a lot of friends and be respectful," Hamlin said. "And I definitely still am, but this year I just feel a lot more comfortable. Being in the Chase and understanding how it works, I definitely feel a lot more secure."

Although Hamlin, 26, opens the Chase today at New Hampshire International Speedway seeded sixth in the standings, he's feeling the pressure of a favorite. There are big hopes after a sophomore season in which he won once -- on this track in July -- and had 15 top-10 finishes.

"Last year we were just happy to be in it, and anything after that was going to be a bonus," Hamlin said. "This year, it's a little more stressful because we go into it knowing that we're capable of winning the Chase."

Two-time NASCAR Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr. led 174 of the 200 laps in the New Hampshire 200 at Loudon on the way to his fourth victory of the season and the 33rd of his career.

Hornaday dominated early and then turned it into a runaway late in the race as runner-up Erik Darnell, Mike Skinner and reigning series champion Todd Bodine battled for position behind him. Hornaday beat Darnell to the finish line by 4.211 seconds -- about the length of the main straightaway.

Skinner, who finished third, trails Hornaday by 29 points with seven events left.

Kimi Raikkonen won the pole position for today's Belgian Grand Prix with a lap of 1 minute 45.994 seconds over the 4.325-mile track, beating out teammate Felipe Massa by .017 seconds for the first Ferrari front row this season.

After taking the lead on Lap 19, 18-year-old rookie Jace Meier of Las Vegas held off a three-wide battle by Nick Joanides and Kevin Callahan to win the Auto Club Late Model 50-lap feature division race at Irwindale Speedway.

It was Meier's first division victory. His margin of victory over Joanides was 0.155 seconds.

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