By the time NASCAR's season-ending banquet was winding down at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel, word had spread from table to table like middle-school gossip: Denny's throwing a blowout at the Palms. Only to be followed by another line, spoken in hushed tones: And I heard he's spending 100 grand. To celebrate his fifth-place finish in the final points standings, Denny Hamlin was indeed about to host a bash deep into the December night—and he was going six figures deep into his own pocket to do it.
The bigger names arrived on the 34th floor of the Palms as the clock neared midnight. Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain and Rockies first baseman Jason Giambi strolled into the two-story, 9,000-square-foot Hugh Hefner Sky Villa, overlooking the Strip. So did a half-dozen Sprint Cup drivers, including Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch and Michael Waltrip, who were treated to an open bar that included libations cascading down a large ice sculpture depicting the numeral 11, Hamlin's car number, and the logo of his sponsor, FedEx. The host worked the room, schmoozing his guests and keeping tabs on the music—perfect practice for a man about to open his own nightclub in Charlotte.
Then, in the wee hours of the morning, a buzz went through the suite when the one luminary no one was expecting to show, did. Jimmie Johnson had left the Champion's Party at the Palazzo, where he had been feted by the suits from Sprint, to get in on the real action. As Johnson mingled with the drivers and the other beautiful people filling the suite, Hamlin, dressed in a white button-down shirt and blue jeans, grabbed the microphone from the deejay. Aggressive and abrasive on the track, Hamlin is often shy and introspective off it. But not here, not in the middle of his own party. "I want to congratulate Jimmie on winning his fourth straight championship," Hamlin told the crowd. "He's a great champion."
As the applause died down, a look of intensity—at odds with the breezy surroundings—crossed Hamlin's boyish face. "And know this, Jimmie," he said, voice deepening. "Next year ... I'm coming for you!"
Yes, even before 2010 could commence, Hamlin, along with every other top-tier driver in NASCAR, had his sights trained on Johnson. Yet as the new season begins on Sunday with the 52nd running of the Daytona 500, it's the 29-year-old Hamlin who is the garage favorite to end Johnson's record run of four straight titles. Like annual contenders Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, Hamlin drives for a powerhouse team (Joe Gibbs Racing), is a proven winner (four checkered flags in '09) and has demonstrated the necessary consistency (11 top 10 finishes in a 13-race stretch last year).
And unlike those other title contenders, Hamlin has run wheel-to-wheel with Johnson when it matters most. Last season Hamlin finished ahead of Johnson in five of the 10 Chase races. What doomed Hamlin in the playoff run were two blown engines—resulting in a 42nd-place finish in Charlotte and a 38th at Talladega—and a crash late in the race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., which caused him to finish 37th. If Hamlin had come in fifth or better in those three starts, he would have unseated Johnson in '09.
"Denny and his team have all the tools, but they're just looking for the road map of how to peak at the right time and how to win the Chase," the 34-year-old Johnson says. "He manages risk so well, and he adapts to all kinds of tracks, which are the two reasons why I think he's a real threat to us this year. We're going to be watching him and his team very closely."
"There is no question in my mind we can beat Jimmie," says Hamlin, who's entering his fifth full season on the circuit—which, incidentally, is when Johnson won his first championship. "We just can't beat ourselves. Those two engine failures in the Chase killed us, and I messed up in California because I knew we had a second-place car that day behind Jimmie. I was trying to be aggressive on a restart and get past Juan [Pablo Montoya]. I made that mistake because I let Jimmie get into my head. But that won't happen again, I promise. I really feel like this is our year."
If it is, then Hamlin will become almost certainly the first NASCAR driver in history to win a championship with a torn ACL. On Jan. 22, while playing in his regular pickup basketball game in Charlotte, Hamlin cut to the hoop and felt a pop in his left knee. Because the recovery time for ACL surgery is typically four to six months and Daytona was only three weeks away, Hamlin elected not to go under the knife until after the season. His doctors say he'll be uncomfortable behind the wheel for the next month, but that the damaged knee shouldn't be a serious roadblock in his pursuit of Johnson. On oval tracks drivers use their left leg sparingly; it's on road courses that they have to repeatedly shift and brake. The Sprint Cup circuit's two road-course races don't take place until the second half of the regular season, at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., on June 20 and at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International on Aug. 8. The pressure on Hamlin's left knee will be minimal for the next four months.
Hamlin isn't concerned. Two days after his injury Hamlin, who is on Twitter more than anyone else in NASCAR and has the largest following (some 13,000) of any driver, tweeted: "i'm going to bed on this note.. no matter what people may think this injury will not stop me from being a contender this year." Four minutes later, presumably from his bed, Hamlin added, "nobody wants it as bad as me. PERIOD.. goodnight world."