Hamlin vowing to win one for NH troops

CONCORD – Denny Hamlin received his orders from headquarters last week regarding his role in NASCAR’s “Chase Across America” promotional tour. Visiting the Granite State works just fine for him.

He’s already planning a celebration for Sept. 23, offering an open invite for a group of New Hampshire National Guard members to join him in Victory Lane should he win on Sept. 23.

Just 12 days before circling New Hampshire Motor Speedway in his No. 11 FedEx Toyota for the Sylvania 300 – Race No. 2 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship – the series points leader spent the 11th anniversary of 9/11 at the New Hampshire Army National Guard Aviation Facility, the Red Blazer Pub, for a question and answer luncheon with fans and a polling location to interact with primary voters.

“This is without a doubt one of my favorite stops in the series,” said Hamlin, who begins the Chase along with 11 other title-hungry drivers Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway before returning to New Hampshire. “We’ve had a very good season so far, but our goal is that championship, and New Hampshire is a crucial stop for us in making that happen.

“We expect to run well at most of these final 10 tracks, but we expect to win at New Hampshire.”

In 13 starts at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the 31-year-old Chesterfield, Va., native has one win (July 2007), nine top-10 finishes (six in top five) and led 224 laps at the Magic Mile.

With so much focus on the racing, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had to take a step back Tuesday afternoon as he met with members of the 169th National Guard Med-Evac Aviation Unit, which will be deploying to Afghanistan six days after the Sylvania 300, and their families.

“This is the first time I’ve had the chance to meet with a military unit outside of the track,” Hamlin said. “You guys are the true heroes and I know I can speak for a lot of people when I say that I wish you a safe and speedy return home.”

Nashua’s Keri Gorsuch, one member of the 169th being deployed, was moved by Hamlin’s visit and the gift of tickets for the Sept. 23 race that NHMS is offering her unit and their family members.

“I got goosebumps,” she said. “To know the week I have left in New Hampshire will be with my friends and family and we’ll all be enjoying ourselves as fans at the NASCAR race.”

In Gorsuch’s case, it’s a family that has always served its country proudly – her grandfather John in the Navy, while her father James and brother Michael preceded her in the National Guard.

“It’s nice to know we have the support of the speedway and the drivers in what we do,” she said. “My family has always been involved in the military. It’s something I’m proud of and I hope something that my father is proud of as I stand on my own. I am excited to go overseas and serve. This is for my country.”

Jerry Gappens, executive vice president and general manager of NHMS, invited the 169th unit to the Sept. 23 race to cheer on Hamlin. Oh, and the driver actually
sponsored by the National Guard, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is seventh in the Chase standings.

“We’re looking forward to going out to the track and watching you,” 169th’s Chief Warrant Officer Andy Foote said. “We’ve got a lot of NASCAR fans in this group and I think you’ve made a few more today. We wish you the best of luck when you come back here.”

During the luncheon Q&A, it was back to racing talk, and Hamlin’s runner-up finish to Kasey Kahne in July’s LENOX Industrial Tools 301 at NHMS.

“Well I’m still burning a bit from not winning the race here back in July,” said Hamlin, who had the dominant car only to fall out of the lead due to poor communication on pit road on July 15. “I know we’ve got a great chance at this thing and we’re going to do all we can to make sure we come out on top after these next 10 races – but it’s all about taking it one race at a time.”

The final stop of the afternoon was the polling station at Broken Ground School, where the driver spent time greeting voters and enjoying the view of fans holding up “Hamlin in 2012” signs.

“That’s pretty cool,” Hamlin said. “I hope it comes true.”

That is a definite possibility for Hamlin. He’s been one of NASCAR’s hottest drivers heading into the Chase with two of his Cup-leading four wins this season coming in the last three weeks. He has 13 top-10s, 11 of those top-fives.

If it does happen, Hamlin and the 169th National Guard unit will have one heck of a celebration.

“One of the Guard members asked me ‘Where are we gonna get the beer at the race,’ ” Hamlin said. “I told them to meet me in Victory Lane.”