CONCORD, N.C. --- The buzz surrounding Denny Hamlin started months before he took the checkered flag on last season's finale. What was a murmur, though, suddenly became a roar.
That November victory at Homestead, his career-best fourth of the year, officially made Hamlin the trendy pick to unseat reigning four-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2010.
But being the preseason favorite isn't all it's cracked up to be, as Carl Edwards would likely admit. He was the popular pick last year but suffered through a winless season and an 11th-place finish in the standings.
Hamlin is determined not to fall into that same trap.
"I've been compared to Carl before. He had a really good rookie year and then had a sophomore slump and didn't make the Chase," Hamlin said Monday during the annual preseason media tour. "But I am not Carl Edwards and I am not with Roush-Fenway (Racing). I am Denny, I am with Joe Gibbs Racing and with an organization that does a really good job of minimizing the peaks and valleys.
"So I don't foresee any of the expectations being too far off."
Hamlin set the bar high himself this time last year, when he went into 2009 determined to put a full season together and take the personal steps needed to be a true championship contender. Although he's made the Chase in each of his four seasons, he struggled to mount a legitimate challenge to Johnson.
Despite his tough talk, Hamlin had doubters. It wasn't until September, when he grabbed a breakthrough win at home-track Richmond, that people began to notice he had flipped a switch.
He became more vocal about NASCAR's rules and regulations, and took to Twitter to both offer his opinions and interact with fans. He publicly sparred with Brad Keselowski, the next big star, and lashed out with comical diatribes against the brash new driver.
But more important, he won two Chase races and proved that barring mechanical failures, Hamlin and his No. 18 team have a very real potential to be champions. Hamlin had only one true off race in the Chase -- a 22nd at Dover -- but was hampered by mechanical failures at Charlotte and Talladega that ultimately contributed to his fifth-place finish in the standings.
"I know how much it fuels me up wanting to be the guy who takes him off his chair," Hamlin said of Johnson. "I don't think anyone else in the garage wants it worse than I do right now."
BUSCH SIGNS DEAL
CONCORD, N.C. --- Joe Gibbs Racing signed Kyle Busch to a long-term extension, ensuring he won't be distracted while the team tries to return him to championship-contending form.
"It's just nice to have it done," team president J.D. Gibbs said Monday. "Nice to focus on what's coming in the future rather than what's to be done."
Gibbs announced the extension during the team's stop on the annual preseason media tour held by Charlotte Motor Speedway. He said the deal has actually been signed for some time, but the team wanted the news out so it can focus on the upcoming year.
The season opens Feb. 14 with the Daytona 500.
-- Associated Press