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NASCAR Homestead 2014: Denny Hamlin refuses to let a championship define him

Relaxed and more carefree, Denny Hamlin hopes a changed outlook will produce a different championship than four years ago.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Denny Hamlin arrived at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a chance of winning the Sprint Cup championship was in 2010, and his confidence was high with a sense of inevitability that the title would be his.

That self-assurance proved misleading. Instead of taking his first championship, Hamlin's bid came undone due to the mounting pressure, which led him to stumble and bumble throughout the weekend. Slow in qualifying, he panicked early in the race and overdrove, leading to an early spin. Although Hamlin recovered to finish 14th, it wasn't enough, and Jimmie Johnson handily won a fifth straight title.

It was a loss that shook Hamlin, who had won a series-high eight races. A championship which was seemingly secure had escaped his grasp.

"I think that was absolutely devastating for him," said Joe Gibbs, Hamlin's team owner. "When we walked out of the media center, he turned to me and he made a comment like, ‘I cost us that championship.' I said, ‘Denny, you got us here.' But it was truly devastating for him."

"I feel like I've grown so much as a person over the last couple years that I see a bigger perspective in life than having to sell my soul to go win a Cup championship."-Denny Hamlin

How the 2010 season ended took some time for Hamlin to recover. The following year, the No. 11 team was a shell of itself, winning just a single race with Hamlin struggling to move past what had transpired.

Eventually, with the aid of a sports psychologist and an offseason spent self-reflecting, Hamlin's outlook changed. In 2012, he rebounded to win five races and was in title contention up until the halfway point of the Chase before a mechanical failure at Martinsville Speedway proved too much to overcome.

Although injury derailed his title hopes last year -- he missed four races with a broken back and returned prematurely -- Hamlin ended the season strongly with a victory at Homestead. And this season, though lacking speed and great results, Hamlin has preserved, escaped Chase elimination and enters Sunday's finale as one of four drivers still championship eligible.

"It is exciting, but it's not going to overwhelm me, and it's not going to define me in my career," Hamlin said. "I feel like I've grown so much as a person over the last couple years that I see a bigger perspective in life than having to sell my soul to go win a Cup championship.

"We have a great opportunity in front of us, and I'm going to give 1000 percent out on that race track and drive as hard as I've ever driven, but we're just going to see where the chips fall. There's only certain things I can control, and I'm going to try to control them on Sunday."

Being confident but not overly cocky and able to appreciate the opportunity before him is a far different mindset than the one Hamlin had four years earlier.

Unlike 2010, Hamlin says there are no nerves this time around. In large part that can be attributed to the fact the he is not the favorite to win the championship, a label bestowed on Kevin Harvick, and to a lesser degree, Joey Logano.

"In 2010, I just was so different because of the expectations of that season were so high," Hamlin said. "Everyone thought we were a shoe-in and I thought we were a shoe-in -- I let the moment overtake me. This time around, I just feel like we survived and we kept surviving and now we have a shot at it. To me, there is no place to go but up."

Accordingly, Hamlin is determined to approach this weekend far differently. Instead of sequestering himself like he did in 2010, Hamlin plans to relax with friends and family Saturday night. And if being more carefree can lead to a championship, that's all the better.

"Just racing much looser and having fun with this moment," Hamlin said. "You never know, especially with this type of format. Live it up and have some fun.

"I'm ecstatic to be here, and I'm going to treat this weekend like it's my birthday weekend and go have fun. This is what I dreamed about. But win lose or draw, it's not going to define me one way or the other."