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Paulk: Logano drives Hamlin batty

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 11:52 p.m.

At some point during his career, Denny Hamlin will capture a Sprint Cup championship. Perhaps, he'll win two or three titles.

Besides, he has the requisite skills and instincts of most contenders. Also, former NFL coach Joe Gibbs continues to provide Hamlin with a car and crew even more reliable than the mammoth offensive lines that helped propel the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl victories.

However, Hamlin's success hinges on him keeping his head together under pressure. He has managed his emotions admirably over the past several years. He avoided being lured into mindless, distraction-filled confrontations.

Then, along came Joey Logano.

Logano, a former Gibbs Racing teammate, has succeeded in driving Hamlin mad. The usually even-tempered Hamlin has lost his focus. With every passing weekend, a lug nut seemingly loosens to weaken him mentally, thus impairing Hamlin's vision of a championship.

Last Sunday, Hamlin's title aspirations were dashed when the two collided on the final lap at Fontana. It's an accident that left Hamlin with a fractured vertebra. Mark Martin will pilot the No. 11 Toyota at Martinsville next weekend, and Hamlin isn't expected back until the May 11 race at Darlington.

Logano attempted to smooth things over with a text message to Hamlin earlier this week. But Hamlin acknowledged the “unproductive” text exchange didn't resolve anything.

The two are in a similar place to when their feud began to simmer during the latter stages of the 2012 Cup season. They were never the best of teammates, and it was clear Gibbs was putting Logano on the waiver wire in an effort to maintain some semblance of camaraderie.

Of course, Logano's dismissal was assured as soon as word leaked that Matt Kenseth was considering jumping from Roush-Fenway Racing to JGR. It's not as if Kenseth and Hamlin are a perfect fit, but Kenseth is a mature driver willing to work with Hamlin if it'll position both to win JGR's fourth Sprint Cup title.

Logano still is feeling the sting of rejection. He was given three years to deliver at JGR, but he left with a bruised ego and with the need to prove he's better, smarter and tougher than Hamlin.

Instead, Logano exposed every weakness that prompted Gibbs to show him the door. He doesn't have the patience and maturity to navigate the choppy waters that always have steered him off course despite Gibbs providing him with the equipment and personnel to succeed.

However, while Logano's juvenile antics are largely responsible for the two exchanging verbal jabs and paint schemes the past two weekends, the burden is on Hamlin to brush aside the petty squabbling to ensure he qualifies for the Chase.

I agreed with Hamlin's criticism of comparing the new Gen-6 car to the oft-maligned Car of Tomorrow. I part with him, though, when he opts to engage in a senseless battle with a driver nowhere near his equal.

Hamlin, who has 22 Cup victories in eight seasons, should know better. He should know that every point counts when the 12 Chase qualifiers push the reset button for the postseason and that Logano won't be in championship contention.

Hamlin and Logano might be giving NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France what he wants — the WWE on wheels. But the two of them “having at it” as France encouraged three years ago won't benefit either with a points format designed to reward consistency instead of wins.

The fact that Hamlin is 10th in points after tumbling four spots at Fontana is a testament to his talents. However, it also reflects a need for him to tighten the mental lug nuts and keep alive his championship aspirations.

Ralph N. Paulk is a Trib Total Media reporter. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib. Listen to the Auto Racing Show with Ralph N. Paulk every Friday at 9 to 10 a.m. on TribLive Radio.

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