DOVER, Del. – Denny Hamlin shattered all expectations of what a rookie could achieve in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup ranks by winning two races and finishing third in the 2006 championship points race. In the process, Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Va., made Joe Gibbs Racing look like the smartest team in the garage, where the race to sign the sport’s next superstar is as fierce as the high-octane battle waged on the tracks each weekend.
But after May 24, Hamlin will be eased out of his part-time duties for Gibbs in the second-tier Busch Series, where he competes largely for fun. That’s because May 24, 2008, marks the 18th birthday of the team’s next phenom – 17-year-old Joey Logano – who’ll finally meet the age requirement to compete in NASCAR’s major racing series.
“He’s the future of Joe Gibbs Racing,” Hamlin, 26, said of Logano on Friday at Dover International Speedway. “He’s able to adapt to different series and different racecars that he’s never been in before. To accomplish what he has is a good deal for Joe Gibbs Racing.”
Hamlin, who’s in the thick of NASCAR’s postseason championship race, was at Dover’s Monster Mile to qualify for Sunday’s Dodge Dealers 400. He was third fastest in Gibbs’ No. 11 Chevrolet. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson will start from the pole after bumping Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya to the second starting spot with a fast lap of 154.765 mph.
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After the qualifying session, the track hosted the season finale of NASCAR’s developmental Busch East series, which, much like a Class A baseball league, is dominated by young prospects. A sparse crowd remained to watch the Sunoco 150 – the fastest and longest stock-car race on the regional touring series. But those who stayed got a peek at the drivers who might become NASCAR’s next superstars.
An Earnhardt started from the pole. In this case it was Jeffrey Earnhardt, 18, grandson of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt and a nephew of the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Jr.
Jeffrey Earnhardt was a junior at Mooresville High in North Carolina when he was signed in February to a developmental deal with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his late grandfather, at the height of contract talks between the team and its star, Dale Jr. Jeffrey’s father, Kerry Earnhardt, also signed with DEI. But Dale Jr. will leave DEI at season’s end for Hendrick Motorsports.
If you didn’t look closely, you might have mistaken Jeffrey’s car for his famous uncle’s. It was bright red, just like the No. 8 Budweiser car. In fact, it was a hand-me-down Nextel Cup Chevy, the same car Dale Jr. had driven in the all-star race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last May. It bore a different number, 1, for this occasion.
And, not surprisingly, it churned out more horsepower than any car on the track.
Starting second was Logano, 17, of Middletown, Conn., who started racing quarter-midgets at age 6. At 7 he won a regional championship in the miniature division. And he progressed up the racing ladder from there, winning in every type of car: Bandoleros, Legend Cars and late-model stock cars.
Joe Gibbs Racing signed him to a driver development deal in 2005. Two months after he turned 15, Logano won a Hooters Pro Cup race at Mansfield Motorsports Speedway in Ohio. He has been able to test the Nextel Cup cars for his more famous teammates, Hamlin and two-time champion Tony Stewart. Earlier this year, Stewart stood on the roof with Logano’s spotter during a recent test at California’s Infineon Raceway and coached the young driver through the tricky road-course turns.
Logano had built such a commanding lead in the Busch East series standings this year, winning five of the first 13 races, that he needed only to flip the ignition Friday to become the first rookie to win the series title. That accomplished, he wasted no time declaring his intent to accomplish even more, snatching the lead from Earnhardt entering the first turn of the first lap.
The teens staged a great, paint-swapping battle over the last 20 laps.
As Jeffrey Earnhardt and Logano battled side by side, Sean Caisse of Pelham, N.H., took the lead and held on for the victory, while Logano and Earnhardt finished second and third, respectively.