RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - To fully respect the emotion of reaching the top of the mountain, you need to look at the trip that it took to get there.
Denny Hamlin is on the cusp of a NASCAR championship, but it was by no means an easy climb.
Buck Reuss is a family friend, and has been following Hamlin's career for almost 15 years as a photographer.
"He literally took every step, climbed every step," Reuss said. "Age 7, first race at Southside Speedway, won it."
Hamlin won 120 go-kart feature races, ten moved up to arena racing, the next step to mini-stock cars...when he started racing with the number that he would one day be racing with on the biggest circuit in the world. It was when Hamlin was 16 years old that Buck Reuss first saw the young driver in person.
"When I first met him at Langley Speedway you could see the kid driving the 11, he won that night, I was in disbelief," Reuss said.
"Older guys just wanted to stomp on this little kid," said local racing historian, Joe Kelly.
Kelly is a 29-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner and hosts a weekly radio show called Let's Talk Racing.
"He won 25 out of 30 races in 2002, then did the same thing at Kenly North Carolina," he said.
As Hamlin climbed up the ladder, he got the reputation as a driver that understood more than just what it took to race.
"He changed tires that's something that puts him at an advantage," Kelly said.
By the beginning of 2003, money was tight, and NASCAR teams were not looking at local racers as their next stars.
But you could call it a fluke, or maybe fate, Hamlin got his break with Joe Gibbs Motorsports in late 2003.
"He made more prestige for Virginia and for local racers than anybody," Kelly said. "If he wins it, then maybe they'll start looking at these local racers again."