Talladega week: Hamlin comes roaring into town off Vegas victory

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Sep. 27—Denny Hamlin already has established himself as a good driver at Talladega Superspeedway and doesn't really need a great finish this week for the sake of his legacy.

He doesn't need one for his Cup championship hopes, either.

Hamlin won last week's South Point 400 in Las Vegas, which was the opening race of the Cup's Round of 12 playoff structure. A victory automatically advances the driver, so Hamlin will move into the Round of 8, regardless of what happens in the remaining two Round of 12 races.

So, while the rest of the field will enter this week's YellaWood 500 with the typical nerves created by the unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway, Hamlin can rest easy.

"It really can't be overstated. ... If there's a competitor out there, a team out there, that's not having to deal with that pressure, it's a big advantage," Hamlin said. "I'm happy it's the 11 car."

Then again, why not keep racing for wins?

"I'm professional so I'm going to work just as hard each and every week to win," he said.

And, why not Talladega? He's won two races at the track, including the race this past spring. He also has placed in the top five a total of nine times, starting with a fourth-place finish in the fall 2007 race.

Also, Hamlin has been especially good lately. In his last four races, he has the win at Las Vegas, a win at Darlington to start the playoffs, a second-place finish at Richmond and a ninth-place showing at Bristol.

"We should have won all of 'em," Hamlin said. "I can't disagree, we probably should have won every race so far in the playoffs. I guess I heard out there we led a third of all the laps so far in the Playoffs. We're good."

The two recent wins are Hamlin's lone victories this season, although he is second in the points standings to Kyle Larson.

"We knew that this is what we're capable of. Really we've shown this all year long," he said. "It shows in laps led, top fives, top 10s. For whatever reason, whether it be bad luck, mistakes on our own, we haven't got all the bunches of wins that we've had in the past.

"Hopefully this is the start of a really good run."

It was especially meaningful for crew chief Chris Gabehart, as Hamlin has struggled in the past at Las Vegas.

"This was statistically Denny's worst racetrack," Gabehart said. "For us to be able to triumph here and do it consistently now. I mean, we had the best car here a year ago, a really good car this spring, certainly had a top two car tonight. It just shows what this race team is capable of. I'm proud of it."

So, should Hamlin be the favorite to win the Cup, instead of Larson?

"I don't care," Hamlin said. "Nothing matters. You have to play the game. It doesn't matter who's the favorite. You have to play. ... I just think it's so hard to predict. This championship is made in one race. It's so different than it used to be. Our goals going into the year is to make the Final Four because it's really, really hard to predict what can happen in one particular race.

"But favorite? I don't know. I like our chances on a Phoenix-type track, that's for sure."

Senior Editor Mark Edwards: 256-235-3570. On Twitter: @MarkSportsStar.

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