Denny Hamlin glanced at the NASCAR Scene logo adorning the shirts of two magazine reporters waiting to interview him at Richmond International Raceway, and his eyes narrowed.
It was September 2008, and Hamlin had just qualified for his third straight Chase – making him three-for-three in his career. But before the interview began, Hamlin made sure to let the reporters know what a big mistake their publication had made.
"I read y'all's preseason predictions, and only three of you picked me to make the Chase!" he said, incredulous. "Three!"
Being snubbed by the magazine's six other writers had apparently stuck in Hamlin's mind all year long, a piece of bulletin board material he found to be motivating.
Hey, whatever works.
Hamlin has been making Denny Doubters look foolish for his entire NASCAR career, and I should know.
I was among those who bet against Hamlin in 2008, which is just one of many poor NASCAR predictions I've made. But that didn't stop me from making one of my dumbest statements yet just two weeks ago before the Daytona 500.
"I have my doubts about Joe Gibbs Racing these days, because the team seems to have mechanical gremlins that won't go away," I wrote in my preseason predictions. "Hamlin is a great talent, but I'm going to say he misses the Chase with new crew chief Darian Grubb."
Despite the risks associated with being a Denny Doubter, I felt fairly confident the prediction would come true.
Hamlin had the worst season of his career last year. He still made the Chase (as he has every year), but had career-lows in top-fives, top-10s and average finish. The effects of his 2010 Chase collapse seemed to be lingering, JGR was way off by its own standards and crew chief Mike Ford was fired at the end of the season.
Plus, Hamlin had said all through last summer he was confident JGR would turn things around and get him the equipment and support he needed to succeed, but it never did. Why would things be any different now?
Even if Grubb was able to come in and make some changes, I figured, the results would still take months to show on the track. Factor in that Hamlin has historically been a slow starter, and there were some legitimate reasons he could miss the Chase this year.
Hamlin, of course, caught wind of my prediction – he has a radar for Denny Doubters – and made me aware of his disagreement on Daytona 500 media day.
While interviewing Michael Waltrip, someone's arm suddenly wrapped around my throat and made it difficult to breathe.
"You think I'm going to miss the Chase?" the voice said in my ear.
Hamlin – who is one strong dude even when he's pretending to choke someone – eventually released me before I passed out, and I explained my reasoning once I restored air to my lungs.
He listened, but disagreed. The 31-year-old said he was "100 percent" certain he would make the Chase this year and I was wrong.
"We'll see," I said.
"Bulletin board material," he grinned.
Well, guess what? Hamlin had a career-best fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500, then went out and won the damn Phoenix race.
He's leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings, is already clicking with Grubb and is more determined and more motivated than ever. While a Chase spot is far from guaranteed after just two races, Hamlin already has a head start on a wild card berth if he needs it – and he did last year, securing the No. 12 spot with just one victory.
But I didn't think he'd win at all in the first half of the season, so I'm already wrong – and in record time.
As if the personal shame for being a Denny Doubter isn't enough, Hamlin isn't the type to let such things slide easily. The moment he walked into the winner's press conference on Sunday, he caught my eye and pointed as if to say, 'That's what you get for doubting me.'
He then called me out for not asking a question during the interview session (I was working on another story at the time).
"Gluck, you don't have anything to say?" he prodded.
"I'm too stunned," I answered.
"Speechless?" Hamlin said. "Good. That's just how I like him."
That's one Denny Doubter crossed off the list in 2012. And if Hamlin keeps this up, he'll be able to silence a lot more people than just me.
Above: If you doubt Denny Hamlin, he's watching you. (Photo: Jeff Gluck / SB Nation)