Title contender, team owner have long and unique history together RELATED: Follow your picks in the Chase Battle Grid Presented by Toyota HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It's a moment Denny Hamlin still remembers vividly, when as a bright-eyed 11-year-old fan of the NFL's Washington Redskins, he famously told Coach Joe Gibbs that he'd love to win a championship driving for him someday. Come Sunday, he'll have another great opportunity to make good on his childhood dream. Hamlin enters Sunday's season finale (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Homestead-Miami Speedway as one of the four drivers vying for their first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. As he has for the duration of his nine-year career in stock-car racing's top division, he'll be carrying the flag for Joe Gibbs Racing behind the wheel of his familiar No. 11. "It would mean a lot. I'm still with the race team that gave me my start and not only that, the sponsor, too," Hamlin said. "We have a long relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx and even the team members that work on my race car that have been with me from the very, very start -- it would be so gratifying to win the championship for them. They've worked their guts out and even though this year hasn't produced results that we expect and the expectations that we expect to hit when we hit the race track, we find ourselves in a winner-take-all type format for one race and we know anything can happen." In 1992, Hamlin was impatiently waiting at an autograph session to meet Gibbs , who had just finished leading the Redskins to their third Super Bowl title. The team owner was also getting his fledgling single-team stock-car racing operation off the ground with Dale Jarrett, now a NASCAR Hall of Famer, as his driver. That's when pre-teen Hamlin saw his chance to tout his still-developing go-karting skills, drawing what he characterized as a "there, there, now run along" type of response from the veteran coach. He also got the autograph on a hat he cherished, only to have the keepsake fly out his school bus window during one of his spells of restlessness on the ride home. Hamlin said he "cried for two weeks" after the autographed cap went missing, but that he never lost his loyalty to the man who would one day become his car owner. "He's a great guy and what I love is that I'm driving for a family organization," Hamlin said. "I want to win it so bad for them because they are all in this sport. If their race team goes under they got nothing -- they have nothing. To race for an owner that lives and breathes racing like Joe does and he's at the race shop every morning when that shop door opens and that means a lot to me. There would be no other person more gratifying to win this for than him, especially a guy that I looked up to as a kid." Hamlin's best shot at a championship before this weekend came in 2010. He led the Sprint Cup standings entering the Homestead finale, but an early race spin left his car with splitter damage and an uphill climb. Jimmie Johnson capitalized and went on to secure the fifth of his sixth titles. Gibbs said Hamlin was "absolutely devastated" by the defeat, taking the brunt of the blame. This time around, the coach says he sees a more mature driver on the cusp of a championship. Hamlin, for one, says he notices a considerable difference in his approach, four years later. "Just playing this game way more relaxed," Hamlin said, describing his self-induced tension on the eve of the 2010 finale. "I didn't do anything that night, didn't want anyone coming in -- just wanted to focus on what I needed to do, but that wasn't what got me to that point. It was being myself and having my friends and family around -- playing cards before driver intros, whatever it took to loosen me up. That's what I did for 35 races and I changed that for one race and it won't be the case this time around. Just racing much looser and having fun with this moment. You never know, especially with this type of format. Live it up and have some fun." MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL CHASE COVERAGE • Chase hub page • Chase Grid games • #MyChaseNation
Joe Gibbs Racing history, full crews of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth
Rutledge Wood sits down with Joe and JD Gibbs to discuss safe driving and the importance of taking the Safe Driving Pledge from Toyota.
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR 1. Now that the season has been completed, what do you think? What stands out about 2014? Alan Cavanna: The Chase and everything surrounding the Chase. It worked out better than expected and I think it's sent the sport in a good direction. Kenny Bruce: It's definitely a long list, some good and some not-so-good. Dale Earnhardt Jr . winning the Daytona 500 , Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger winning for the first time and making the Chase, the excitement of the new format and the intensity that it generated. You had must-win situations for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , and they came through. The whole situation surrounding Tony Stewart late in the season will be memorable for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. But it's become a part of what the '14 season was all about. Zack Albert: So many storylines to choose from and not just with the new-look Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Five guys -- and there for a while, a sixth -- rose to fantastic heights: Kevin Harvick , Brad Keselowski , Joey Logano , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . all either enjoyed resurgences or breakout years. The sixth slight nod goes to Jimmie Johnson , who was hot as a firecracker heading into the summer, but wasn't quite up to his usual Chase standards. Cavanna: As a storyteller, I loved the emergence of Brad K. as the "black hat" to some. The only way to really earn that is through great performances. Fans love having someone to hate, and Brad gave them plenty of wins to hate on. Bruce: The more you think about it, the more things slide back into focus, Zack. The Johnson hot streak you mentioned, the post-race altercations at Charlotte and Texas that Alan alluded to. And we haven't even touched Nationwide or Trucks, which had incredible moments as well. A rookie wins the NNS title? The first back-to-back champ in the Truck Series? Albert: I distinctly remember sitting in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center watching Ryan Blaney and German Quiroga duke it out on the final lap of the trucks' visit to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park . The whole room stopped what they were doing to watch. Between that and the whole aura of Eldora for the second straight year, many great Truck Series memories. Cavanna: I really believe people will be talking about this first Chase, and first championship race, for a long, long time. To have three contenders with three laps to go still racing for a title was unreal. Bruce: Safe to say the season gave us plenty to talk about. But you're probably correct Alan. When it was all over, the new format and the final race seemed to stand above the rest. Albert: Very true. It all played out with a great finish and all four drivers putting in a championship-worthy performance. And whether you love the new Chase or are one of its critics, the bottom line is: Was the racing good? At Homestead and many other tracks week-in and week-out, the answer was yes. Bruce: Now the question is how do they top that, Zack? Albert: Always room for an encore, methinks. 2. Kevin Harvick semi-joked that the Chase format could shorten his career because of the intensity it generated. OK, maybe or maybe not. But will the format adversely impact opportunities for a team to win multiple titles? Will we see more guys in the hunt or domination by those who figure out the best approach? Expect Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to be better in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup next year, now that they have one year of experience under the format. Cavanna: It's so hard to say because we're dealing with such a small sample size. We all made predictions before knowing how this Chase would work, and we were generally all wrong. Bruce: Generally? How about specifically, Alan? I think I had four different winners in four different Chase brackets and "might" have picked Harvick in one of them. Cavanna: In the end, the most dominant car won. But we also saw how it all came down to one race, and really the final pit stop. That could easily swing a championship, and prevent repeat titles. Albert: The degree of difficulty certainly went up in 2014. But you also have to have the common denominator of performance, year over year, to form a dynasty. Does Harvick have a repeat in him? Absolutely, but some of the new format's nuances can make it tough sledding. It will be interesting to see how teams learn from this first go-round and what the strategies will be for the next Chase episode. Bruce: Listening to post-race comments, Zack, I think you're right. We didn't know what to expect and neither did the teams. I imagine they're already determining what they could have or should have done differently for next year. Albert: Let's hope they can enjoy a little bit of offseason down time before they start number crunching on Chase scenarios. Cavanna: With one Chase to study, I can easily see the No. 48 team planning its strategy for next year. I think teams will take a different approach to ensuring their spot in the final four. Bruce: As far as whether the format favors someone dominating in terms of winning titles, I doubt it. With the elimination races in place, we saw what can happen to even those that were perceived to be the "best" teams. Still, anyone not figuring on Harvick being an early-season favorite should turn in his or her hard card. Cavanna: Once teams "figure it out," I think we could see some teams get good at it. Bruce: Given the format, do we see more "Mark Martin" scenarios? Great drivers who never win a title? Cavanna: That's very possible, Kenny. I feel like every year we'll have a driver who has a Logano-like year, but then just miss it in Homestead. Albert: Not to mention making room for an underdog, a la Newman, in the Championship 4. Bruce: I guess it's a glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Maybe more guys having great seasons that don't win a title, or perhaps the opportunity for more drivers to win it. Albert: Alan's still waiting on his opportunity in a third Penske car. Talk about your Chase bracket buster … Cavanna: My pit crew is stellar! Put me in the race, Captain! 3. OK, we know how 2014 shook out. What’s the outlook for 2015? And by the way, the Daytona 500 is less than 100 days away. Our experts think Kyle Larson makes the postseason next year -- and he may even be a title contender. Albert: Wow. Let me dust off my dart set and start throwing. Bruce: Daytona's rising. That much we know. As for anything else? Lawn Darts, Zack. Go big or go home. Cavanna: The emergence of Kyle Larson will be fun to watch. As long as his team continues to improve, I think he's a lock for the Chase, and a deep run. Albert: A very safe bet that he'll visit Victory Lane on the Sprint Cup side in 2015, probably more than once. Bruce: At least he still has his crew chief, which is more than his teammate can say. Cavanna: I also think some drivers will look at Larson's 2014 season and be even more motivated to get that win. Remember, if Larson had just one regular-season win, it could've been him taking a title in Homestead. No driver will want to be saying "what if" after having a great Chase but not being in it. Bruce: Actually, I think the crew chief movement will play a bigger role in '15. A lot of guys on the box seem to be on the move -- McMurray and Earnhardt Jr. will have new guys in place, we're still waiting to see what unfolds over at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kahne and Kenny Francis are no longer together. Maybe the season-opening question should be, can change top the tried-and-true? Cavanna: Kenseth switched teams and won seven races (in '13); Harvick switched and won a championship. What's next for Carl Edwards ? Albert: Plenty of movement, even though this silly season seems to be sprinkled with less hilarity. I'll be very interested to see if Team Penske can keep it up after a banner season, and how Hendrick Motorsports regroups after going 0-for-4 on title-eligible drivers at Homestead last weekend. Will also be watching to see if Chase Elliott takes those first steps into Sprint Cup, as hinted. Cavanna: We haven't even mentioned the 2015 rules package. The no-ride height made for a big change this season. Next year will be another adjustment, hopefully for the better. Bruce: If that's the case, Alan, then we should probably play close attention to next month's anticipated test at Charlotte. I seem to recall one team being ahead of everyone at that point a year ago ... and look where they ended up. Albert: Who knew that simulated races in December would mean so much? Cavanna: I'm filling out my Chase bracket based on next month's test. MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView
J.D. Gibbs looks back to when the organization started running NASCAR Nationwide Series races and what it took to make the 100-win mark possible.
Kyle Busch talks about winning the NCWTS Owner Champion Award at the NNS and NCWTS Awards Banquet.
2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Chase Elliott gives his acceptance speech druing the end-of-season banquet at the Trump National Doral Miami.
Car Owner Roger Penske talks about winning the NNS Owner Champion Award at the NNS and NCWTS Awards Banquet.