At the track

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 17, 2006

Hamlin on the road to stardom

By Jeff Findley

Special to the Times-Journal

We are seeing a superstar in the making in the Pocono winner, Denny Hamlin.

This guy took over the reins of the No. 11 FedEx Joe Gibbs Racing Chevy at Kansas last year. In the 21 races since, he has one win, three top-fives, and nine top-10s. He currently sits ninth in the standings.

To put Hamlin’s 21-race career in perspective, Jeff Gordon posted six top-fives and nine top-10s but no wins through his first 21 races. Hamlin’s teammate and two-time champion, Tony Stewart, earned no wins, five top-fives and 12 top-10s during his first 21 races. Stewart and Gordon share six championships and 98 wins.

I am not ready to crown Hamlin the next champion, but the guy can drive and is pretty good in those FedEx commercials, as well. In fact, his success will have a lot to do with what team and which driver UPS will sponsor next year. It could remain with Robert Yates Racing or could follow Dale Jarrett to his new Toyota team, but both of those options are looking doubtful.

Rumors are swirling that UPS is eyeing another hot-shot young guy, Kasey Kahne, or going with a proven winner that will get them plenty of air-time, Greg Biffle. Dodge Dealers is currently the sponsor of Kahne’s No. 9, but owner Ray Evernham would do everything possible to satisfy his current commitments to Dodge and gain UPS at the same time. If UPS makes the offer, Evernham will make it happen. Same can be said for Jack Roush and his No. 16 team.

Silly season is heating up, about the same point in the season as last year. In the last week of the 2005 season, Brian Vickers announced his intentions to look for another ride. The next day, Casey Mears told Chip Ganassi he would not return to the No. 42 Texaco team. Mears has already been announced as the driver to take over the seat that Vickers is vacating, the No. 25 Hendrick ride.

Vickers surely has a yet-to-be revealed ride lined up for next season. You just don’t leave Hendrick without a plan. Vickers could be headed to one of the new Red Bull Toyota teams or to the No. 88 Yates ride. My bet is Vickers will be in a Toyota in 2007.

The next stop on the schedule is Michigan International Speedway, a fast, two-mile tri-oval. Qualifying speeds for this race will approach the mid-190 mph mark, and the speeds will get up to 200 mph in the straightaways.

Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin lead all active drivers with four career wins each at this track, but Greg Biffle has been the driver to beat recently at Michigan. Chevy drivers have not been strong here, with a Bowtie only winning once in the last 14 races.

Any of the five Roush cars could win this race, but my pick to win is Mark Martin. Look for Biffle to finally enter the top-10 in points after a strong run in this race.

Jeff Findley is the publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald in Roanoke, N.C. His NASCAR column will appear weekends during the season.