Dennis Hamlin recalls his son’s first go-kart race with a chuckle.

“He was 7 years old,” Hamlin said. “He finished the race and we couldn’t get him to stop. We were chasing after him telling him it was time to get out, and he wasn’t listening.”

Denny Hamlin, now 25, is a lot better at listening to his parents these days, but he’s also just as determined to race.

Heading into Sunday’s NASCAR Nextel Cup Dover 400, Hamlin is well on his way to being the Raybestos Rookie of the Year. He is also the first true rookie to compete in the 10-race Chase for the championship.

But being among the top 10 drivers and having a shot at winning a title in his first full season doesn’t seem to faze the youngster from Chesterfield, Va.

After finishing fourth in the Chase opener last Sunday at New Hampshire, Hamlin is second in the standings, 35 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. That’s quite a spot for a youngster who only two years ago was racing late-model stock cars and wondering if he was going to get a real shot at the big time.

“To me, the pressure’s off,” Hamlin said. “The season’s almost over. You might as well not even count points for me any more.”

Hamlin acknowledges the battle to secure a place in the Chase was “nerve-racking,” but that’s over now.

To win it would be quite an ending to his story. To get him to this point, the entire Hamlin family has gone through the wringer. Dennis Hamlin says the family went through about $750,000 trying to keep Denny racing. That included selling two classic cars and taking out two second mortgages on their home.

“I wanted to be able to sit in my rocking chair and say I did everything I could to get him there,” Dennis said. “I wanted him to have every possible chance to make it.”

But even with his parents’ sacrifices, Hamlin was out of money late in the 2002 season and getting ready to sell his car and work full time in his dad’s trailer and hitch business.

A chance meeting with team owner Jim Dean at South Boston Speedway got the youngster a ride for the next season. The kid won 25 of 36 races and took the championship at Southern National Speedway in Kenly, N.C.

Dean’s team also provided cars for Joe Gibbs Racing’s diversity program, and team president J.D. Gibbs quickly saw Hamlin’s potential, signing him before he even determined where Hamlin would race.

After running a handful of NASCAR truck races and one Busch event in 2004, Hamlin ran the full Busch Series in 2005, finishing fifth in the points. He also ran seven Cup races in preparation for moving up to the big series.

He won a pole and had three top-10 finishes in that brief Cup audition, raising expectations.

No problem. Hamlin has lived up to the hype.

He’s drawn praise from many of the top drivers in the series, including teammate and two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who says he’s “amazed” by the kid’s maturity and focus.

“Tony always seems to talk to me at the best times, and that’s right before I get in the race car,” Hamlin said. “The last thing I hear is his voice telling me whatever he tells me.”

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon also has had praise for Hamlin, saying, “He is very talented and very determined. He’s got a great future.”

Hamlin is grateful for the kind words, but said he’s still just trying to do the best he can.

“Running against those guys every single week, I feel like I’ve kind of grown up in the racing part of it,” Hamlin said. “A lot of Raybestos rookies, you get to run in the top 10 maybe a few times and you don’t understand how these guys up front drive.

“Well, I’ve been lucky enough and run well enough where I race against these guys every single race, and it’s taught me the right way to race them. It’s made me a lot more mature over the year and I think it’s definitely taken my learning curve and cut it in half.”

It looks like Dennis Hamlin can relax. He should have lots of good memories when he eventually sits down in that rocking chair.


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