LOUDON, N.H. - Denny Hamlin caught NASCAR by surprise last season, quietly winning two races and finishing third in the standings, the first rookie to make the Chase for the Championship.
This year, he has spoken out to force pit crew changes, refused to back down to teammate Tony Stewart and proclaimed himself a title contender. He's also spent nine weeks running second to Jeff Gordon in the points standings.
"The very first year, you are trying to gain a lot of friends and be respectful," Hamlin said. "And I definitely still am, but this year I just feel a lot more comfortable. Being in the Chase and understanding how it works."
Although Hamlin opens the Chase today at New Hampshire International Speedway seeded sixth in the standings, he's feeling the pressure of a favorite.
"Last year we were just happy to be in it, and anything after that was going to be a bonus," Hamlin said. "This year, it's a little more stressful because we go into it knowing that we're capable of winning the Chase."
However, the last thing crew chief Mike Ford wants is his driver fretting about the final standings.
"Expectations are now a little higher, and Denny is putting more weight on his shoulders to perform. I think that's dangerous because that's when mistakes happen," Ford said.
In May, Hamlin openly criticized his pit crew. He was frustrated by a handful of victories that had slipped away because of human error on pit road or mechanical problems in the No. 11 Chevrolet.
Then Stewart, a two-time series champion, ripped Hamlin for allegedly causing an accident between the two at Daytona in July. Hamlin was leading and Stewart was second when the two cars knocked each other out of the race, and Stewart was quick to blame his young teammate.
In the moments after the accident, Hamlin accepted the criticism. But after watching replays, and stewing over his teammate's betrayal, he changed his mind and refused to accept blame.
In standing strong against a champion who has made a habit of picking on younger drivers, Hamlin became one of the first newcomers to not be bullied by Stewart.
And after blowing a motor at Bristol in August, Hamlin didn't fret about the lost opportunity. Instead, he focused on the potential his team had shown before the engine died.
"It was a rocket ship all day," he boasted. "The other 11 Chase guys are going to have to deal with us when it's all said and done."
What: Sylvania 300
Where: New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H.
Time/TV: 2 p.m./ABC-Ch. 6
Pole-sitter: Clint Bowyer
2006 champ: Kevin Harvick