tampabay.com

Hamlin wraps up rookie of the year

By KELLIE DIXON
Published November 20, 2006


HOMESTEAD - Denny Hamlin, the youngster driving the FedEx car, delivered this season.

That's why the Tampa-born driver is the rookie of the year.

Hamlin, 26, clinched the award after finishing third in Sunday's Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Clint Bowyer was runnerup for the rookie honor.

Hamlin posted seven top-10 finishes during the 10-race Chase for the Championship, the highest number for any driver.

When it came to rookies, Hamlin not only won the points battle, he made a dent in the history books. His finish is the second- highest by a rookie. The best was second in 1966 by James Hylton.

Hamlin was chosen the rookie of the year based on his season-driving rating, average running position and finish relative to other rookies. He was top rookie in 17 of 36 races this season.

His season wasn't a breeze though, and Sunday's race wasn't without emotion. After a pit stop gone bad, Hamlin started worrying about his place in the points.

"We had just preached a nice, easy, smooth stop - nothing fast," Hamlin said. "And we missed. We dropped the jacks for the lug nuts already. I was very frustrated because I had spent 170 laps trying to get to the front from starting (No.) 33."

He was around seventh when that happened, and figured he fell to maybe fifth in points.

But he regained ground and was in the top four by Lap 240. On the final lap, Hamlin eclipsed Kasey Kahne to take third. Hamlin saw race leader Greg Biffle, but he didn't think he had enough to reach him.

"I thought I had something for (Kahne)," Hamlin said. "To tell you the truth, I didn't know (eventual runnerup Martin Truex) was going as fast as he was."

Hamlin also won some bragging rights. He joked that he won a handshake from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Tony Stewart for beating Stewart's rookie performance. Stewart finished fourth in points in 1999.

"It's just fun to be competitive with Tony in that kind of way," Hamlin said. "... I would trade it just for his stats alone when I'm done with my career."

The thing is, though, Hamlin's Nextel Cup career really is only a year old, and he realizes that.

"These seasons, they don't come by very often," he said. "But what I'm excited about, I know the potential of me as a driver is not nearly at its peak yet."

Greg Biffle, who won Sunday's race, said he thought Hamlin, who lives in Chesterfield, Va., was successful for the same reason Carl Edwards was during his rookie season last year.

"They're (in) really exceptional equipment," Biffle said. "To be perfectly honest, it's hard to screw it up when you've got ... a really fast race car."

Rookie rush

Denny Hamlin's run to third place marks the second year in a row that a rookie has been a serious championship contender right to the end. Here are the past 10 rookies of the year, and selected others, with how they fared in points:

Year Driver Fin.

2006 Denny Hamlin 3rd

2005 Carl Edwards* 2nd

2004 Kasey Kahne 13th

2003 J. McMurray 13th

2002 Ryan Newman 6th

2001 Kevin Harvick 9th

2000 Matt Kenseth 14th

1999 Tony Stewart 4th

1998 Kenny Irwin 28th

1997 Mike Skinner 30th

1993 Jeff Gordon 13th

1987 Davey Allison 21st

1986 Alan Kulwicki 21st

1984 Rusty Wallace 14th

1979 Dale Earnhardt 7th

1977 Ricky Rudd 17th

1966 James Hylton 2nd

1960 David Pearson 23rd

1959 Richard Petty 15th

* Same points as Greg Biffle; Edwards third on a tiebreak