Crew chief Kevin Hamlin has an
uncanny ability to deal with the unexpected
By Mike Mulhern , JOURNAL REPORTER
June 18, 1999 LONG POND, PA
Kevin Hamlin starts his second year on the job today as Dale Earnhardt's crew chief, and
the slow-talking, soft-spoken, dry-witted country boy from the backwoods of Michigan seems
to be fitting right.
Now if he can just get some more wins to go with the one at Talladega.
This is a watershed season for Earnhardt as he watches Dale Jr. move into the spotlight.
That seems to give Earnhardt renewed incentive, which was easily seen in last weekend's
Earnhardt-vs.-Earnhardt IROC finish, a victory which made Senior 3 for 3 this year in the
Hamlin needs to milk that enthusiasm for all it's worth, beginning with today's opening
round of qualifying for Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt hasn't won here since 1993, but his 16th-place run at Michigan, two laps down
and his weakest finish since Martinsville, left him a bit grumpy. ''I thought we had a
better car than that, but we're kind of beating ourselves right now,'' he said. ''We've
got to turn it up a notch or two.''
''It's been an up and down deal this season, not really what we've been looking for,''
Hamlin said. ''But it's been coming around the last few weeks.''
HAMLIN UNDERSTANDS adversity and how to make the best of an unexpected
situation. He got his first taste of that during his brief football career with the 10th
grade junior varsity at tiny Portage High in upstate Michigan.
''I didn't know anything about football when I went out. I just thought it would be cool
because all the chicks liked football players,'' he said. ''It was the stupidest thing I
ever did. You go out there and beat the crap out of each other in practice. I broke our
center's leg, and I busted some other guy's shoulder in practice. I just didn't understand
why you'd want to hurt your own players.
''Me and one of my buddies rode to practice one day on our bicycles. The coach asked me
what position I wanted to play, and I said, 'I don't know, what positions are there?' . .
. I hardly ever watched football on TV. The coach started naming positions, and he got to
guard, and I thought that was cool. So I said, 'OK, I'll play guard.'''
As a 125-pound lineman, Hamlin didn't see much playing time, unless the team was way ahead
or way behind.
''Then the last game of the season the coach put me in at defensive end,'' he said. ''We
were killing Kalamazoo Central, so he decided it was safe to put me in the game because we
had a big enough lead. I didn't know what to do. He told me just kill the quarterback
''I could squirt through there pretty good, and I hit the quarterback every time. Then
they did this trick deal, a double-reverse or something. This guy was running around my
end, and he's hauling the mail. I just about caught this kid just before he scored.
''Our varsity coach happened to be watching, and Monday he came over and asked me why I
was playing defense. I told him that was the only time I ever got to play. I told him I
really played guard. I was probably a third-string guard . . . if we had a third string.
''He told me I was going to be his running back the next year. He asked me if I could
catch the football, and I said 'Heck, yeah.' He said I might even be his offensive end.
''I said, 'But you've got a little problem, because Im not playing football next year.'
''He said, 'Oh, yes, you are.'
''I explained to him about hurting those guys and told him it was the stupidest sport I'd
ever played. Besides, in Michigan when you start practice, it's hot as hell, and when you
finish the season, it's snowing. It's no fun. I was more interested in racing anyway.''
So he gave up football for racing.
HAMLIN'S RACING CAREER didn't start out very promising, either, at least
not as a driver.
Hamlin, who turned 40 yesterday, got hooked when he and Butch Miller were teenagers, when
Miller moved in next door.
''I was probably 14 when I started working on his stuff. Before that I didn't know
anything about stock cars. I was into drag racing,'' Hamlin said.
''I always wanted to be a drag racer. My mom and dad would take me up to the local drag
strip and drop me off and come back and pick us up at one or two in the morning. I always
figured I'd be some kind of racer, though my mom said I could never make a living
Hamlin and Miller worked together for nearly 16 years, running the Midwest, Toledo, Grand
Rapids, South Bend, and points beyond.
But Hamlin's own career behind the wheel lasted only a few weeks.
''It didn't go well,'' Hamlin conceded. ''Butch got me the ride, and I raced that car
three times. The fourth time I drove it, I flipped it and destroyed it. That was the only
time I've ever been knocked out in my life. That's when my racing career ended.
''We were going to build a brand new ASA (American Speed Association) car and go racing
the next season, but Butch called me that winter and said maybe I should just come back
and turn wrenches for him. I was a good driver, just in the wrong spot at the wrong time,
So Hamlin and Miller did the ASA tour, for years. Then in 1990, they decided to come south
to North Carolina, to the big leagues.
Miller and Hamlin both signed on with Travis Carter, but didn't quite click.
''Travis had to release Butch, but Travis wanted me to stay,'' Hamlin said. ''I had to
have a job so I just went ahead and stayed.''
Hamlin eventually wound up at Childress' shop, to work with then-rookie Mike Skinner
during his transition from truck racing to the Winston Cup tour.
Then Hamlin got thrown into the fire as Earnhardt's crew chief by surprise last June. He
was a reluctant recruit. ''One week you're working with Mike Skinner, and then all of a
sudden you're working with Dale,'' Hamlin recalled.
''They'd tried to get me to do the deal with Dale to start with, but I didn't really want
to do it. I didn't want to get in that situation, working at the top of the ladder to
''Skinner and I had a pretty good relationship. He was still in the learning stages,
trying to figure out what he needed for the race the next day, and I was trying to help
him out. I wasn't doing it like Larry (McReynolds) is. I didn't try to baby-sit Mike. I
wanted him to learn from his mistakes. I think you learn better when you learn from your
THE WORD ON EARNHARDT is that he's old-school too much, in an era when
technology and ideas change almost weekly. Hamlin says that's not the case.
''You don't ever forget where you came from, what you've learned, and what's worked in the
past,'' he said. ''But you have to be willing to step out there and try something
different. And we've done that, moved around a little bit. And if we get lost, we'll go
back to the old stuff and see where we're at. And if that isn't working, we'll step out
and try something different.
''But I don't push Dale toward anything. I try to let him make decisions on what direction
he wants to go. I'll make suggestions on which way I think, and sometimes we work through
that and sometimes we just don't.
''I speak the international redneck language, so Earnhardt and I communicate pretty well.
I think I'm a redneck anyway because my father is from Michigan and my mother is from
Arkansas. I can do whatever needs to be done.''
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