In 2006, Denny Hamlin was the apple of everyone's eye. He was a bright-eyed guy who looked like a teenager, even though he was 25, who came from Chesterfield, Va., and whose charm came not only from his aw-shucks personality, but also because he all but drove the wheels off his race car. But 2007 was a whole different story.
If "Everybody Loves Raymond" would have taken on a NASCAR theme in 2006, it likely would have been called "Everybody Loves Denny." Denny Hamlin was the apple of everyone's eye. He was a bright-eyed guy who looked like a teenager, even though he was 25, who came from Chesterfield, Va., and whose charm came not only from his aw-shucks personality, but also because he all but drove the wheels off his race car. While so many fans remember Jimmie Johnson winning his first Cup championship in 2006, they also remember the fresh-faced Hamlin for winning two races, Rookie of the Year honors and being a serious threat for the championship before he ultimately finished the season in third place. But 2007 was a whole different story. Hamlin won only one race, finished dead last in the Chase for the Nextel Cup (12th position), had a celebrated feud with teammate Tony Stewart, forced the reorganization of his own team (including insisting on at least one member being fired), became surly to the media and became a vocal critic who never accepted blame for his own mistakes. Needless to say, everybody didn't love Denny anymore. He almost seemed to fall into a well-worn trap: the hotshot hotfoot that let the success from 2006 go to his head. "It's been difficult," Hamlin said. "I mean, it's hard to be patient. When you get so close to winning so many races and something bad happens or things just don't work out in your favor in the end and you end up losing a win, it's tough to maintain confidence. Your self-esteem starts going down. It takes its toll on you." But Hamlin has begun to show signs of returning to his old self thus far in 2008. He's taken more personal responsibility for his actions, is being more of a true teammate to Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch, is not criticizing his own team members or other rival drivers, and is driving with a much more mature attitude. Not surprisingly, success is starting to come his way. He comes into Sunday's Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway fresh off his first victory of the season, this past Sunday's triumph at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. And with the confidence that victory gave him, Hamlin is well on his way to becoming Mr. Nice Guy again. The question is will he continue in that direction if misfortune suddenly befalls him again? "The curse is over I hope," Hamlin said after Sunday's victory. "I can’t wait. This is a sign of things to come, I believe." While everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas, it's going to be hard to top Hamlin's win at Martinsville. Not only did it come in his home state, it broke a winless streak that stretched back to Loudon, N.H., last July. "Without a doubt, this is the biggest win of my career," said Hamlin, who also has two career wins at Pocono Raceway, earned during his stellar rookie season in 2006. "To see all my fans here wearing my gear in the stands, that means a lot to me. A lot of these people traveled from my hometown to come watch me race here. It’s amazing to have the support that we have from these race fans. They are the reason that we’re here, to weather through it one way or another." Judging from his past record there, Hamlin has a great chance to build on last Sunday's success at Texas. In five career Cup races at the high-speed 1.5-mile oval, Hamlin has one top-five and three other top-10 finishes. "Maybe the monkey's off our back," Hamlin said. "If it is, then I feel like we have a lot of confidence going forward." Jerry Bonkowski is national NASCAR columnist for Yahoo! Sports (Yahoo.com) and a featured contributor for Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com. THE HAMLIN FILE - Raised in Chesterfield, Va., a suburb of Richmond. - His parents put two mortgages on their house to finance Denny's racing career. - Using some of the proceeds from his outstanding rookie season, as well as from lucrative sponsorship endorsements, Denny built a multi-million dollar mansion next to team owner Joe Gibbs in North Carolina last season. Among the highlights: an audio/video system worth a reported $300,000. - Even though he never attended school there, Hamlin is a staunch supporter of Virginia Tech University and helped raise several hundred thousand dollars to help the victims of the mass-shooting spree there last year.