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Denny Hamlin is in hot pursuit

Mercurial driver looks to win at Fontana after some recent negative incidents.

March 23, 2013|By Jim Peltz
  • Denny Hamlin looks for his first win at Fontana in 12 tries after grabbing pole position for Sunday's race.
Denny Hamlin looks for his first win at Fontana in 12 tries after grabbing… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

It's only five weeks into the NASCAR season and Denny Hamlin can't keep himself out of the news.

First, NASCAR fined him $25,000 for questioning the capability of the Sprint Cup Series' new race car. That was followed by his widely publicized feud with rival driver and former teammate Joey Logano.

Then Hamlin won the pole position for Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota, he said, "was just ridiculous fast."

Now the headlines Hamlin seeks are those announcing his first win of the season and first victory at Auto Club Speedway, where the Virginian has never won in 12 Cup starts.

"We haven't had a ton of success there," Hamlin said of the two-mile Fontana oval, where his highest finish was third in 2008. "We have had some back luck with tires or getting caught in wrecks."

Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, found himself caught in a free-speech battle after the season's second race in Phoenix.

Hamlin said NASCAR's new Cup car, dubbed the Gen-6, didn't yet race as well as the previous car and made it tougher to pass other drivers.

NASCAR, which has high hopes that the new car will improve the quality of racing, slapped Hamlin with the fine for his "disparaging remarks" that it found "detrimental" to the sport.

At first a defiant Hamlin refused to pay — he said he was "severely disrespected by NASCAR by getting fined" — and many NASCAR fans came to his defense on Twitter and other social media.

Hamlin later decided not to appeal, but then last weekend in Bristol, Tenn., he got into a war of words with Logano, in person and on Twitter, after Hamlin spun Logano's No. 22 Ford at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Both drivers tried to put the feud behind them ahead of the Fontana race.

"We haven't talked or anything," Hamlin said Friday. "As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing to it from here on out."

Hamlin, 32, is in his eighth full season in the Cup series. He's a moody, mercurial driver who's unafraid to speak his mind and one of NASCAR's leading Twitter users. In January, Hamlin also became a father for the first time.

He has 22 wins, including eight in 2010 and five last year, and has qualified for NASCAR's 12-driver Chase for the Cup title playoff the last seven years.

But Hamlin has yet to win his first championship. He came close in 2010 but finished second in the Cup standings behind five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Before the season started, Hamlin said that to win the title "we need to win at least six or seven races. And we need to fill up the stat column with the proper amount of top-fives and 10s [finishes] that you need to win a championship."

So far this year, Hamlin has only one top-five finish, a third at Phoenix, but he's still sixth in the championship standings, 41 points behind leader and reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

The next champion "is not going to go out there and win one or two races for the year," Hamlin said. "They're going to be the guys that win consistently."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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