Call him cocky, arrogant or just overly confident, but Denny Hamlin will tell you without hesitation that he is one of the toughest competitors in NASCAR.

He makes no bones about it. He’s just being brutally honest.

“Everything that I ever do, I am so competitive and I hate losing, that’s what fuels my racing drive,” Hamlin says. “… As a kid, that was what I loved about racing – the challenge of beating someone heads up. It doesn’t matter what I do, that fire will never, never change.”

That’s why losing the Sprint Cup championship after carrying the points lead into the season finale last year was such a bitter disappointment.

It took him weeks to get over it, and in some ways, the pain and disappointment still linger.

Yet Hamlin wasted no time trying to find someone else to beat during the offseason.

While vacationing in the Bahamas, Hamlin walked into a casino and issued a challenge to one of the top poker players in the world.

“I just walked in there with a bunch of friends and was like, ‘I’d like to challenge someone heads-up, and they said we don’t have that game, but we can get it going,” Hamlin recalls.

Hamlin didn’t know who he was facing until he was suddenly surrounded by professionals on hand for a World Poker Tour event.

“I thought it was no big deal until the next thing you know there is a crowd coming around and there’s all these guys that I recognize, [former world champion] Phil Laak and all these celebrities that I know, talking to this guy,” Hamlin said.

“They said [to my friends], ‘Don’t feel bad when your boy loses to him. He’s the number one Internet player in the world.”

Hamlin wound up playing Daniel Cates, a world-renowned player who had just turned 21, making him eligible to compete in live games. Though he concedes it was a “grind,” Hamlin beat Cates in three hours.

“He charges $2,000 an hour for poker lessons and he got about a three-hour lesson,” boasts Hamlin, who declined to say how much he won, but conceded. “It was a good amount.”

That’s Hamlin, always trying to prove he can beat the best – no matter what sport.

“It’s not too often you can play Michael Jordan one-on-one or play Tiger Woods one-on-one,” he said. “I’m just such a competitor, no matter what the sport, I want to be the best, so I throw myself out there to the sharks.”

Last year, Hamlin went wheel to wheel with the biggest fish in NASCAR, almost dethroning five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

When Hamlin won at Texas Motor Speedway in November, he took the points lead away from Johnson and carried a 33-point lead to Phoenix with just two races remaining. He lost part of that advantage when he had to pit late for fuel at Phoenix, but still led by 15 points going into the season finale. He lost the title when he spun on lap 24 of the race and finished a distant 14th.

Hamlin admits now that he “had a bad feeling” going into the final week of the season and concludes that the championship “just wasn’t meant to be.”

He insists he forgot about 2010 as soon as the awards banquet was over in December. Now he’s got his swagger back and fully expects to challenge Johnson again this season.

“We obviously had a career year last year so we know we can do it,” Hamlin says. “We won at all kinds of different race tracks. All my key personnel are back; the pit crew is the same. The driver will be a little bit better. Everything is in place to hopefully pull off the first one.”

Crew chief Mike Ford says the hurt over losing the championship still lingers, but serves as motivation.

“You never get over it. This is your life. This is what you do. Your families pay a price for you doing this. You will never get over it,” he said. “But with that said, if you turn that energy into motivation, you’ll be better in the end because of it. That’s the approach.”

Recent history is not on their side. It’s been eight years since a driver won the Cup championship a year after finishing second in the standings. Tony Stewart did it in 2002, but the last three runnersup didn’t fare so well the following season.

Mark Martin finished second to Johnson in 2009 but went winless and missed the Chase last year. Carl Edwards finished second to Johnson in 2008, but went winless and finished 11th in points in 2009. And Jeff Gordon finished second to Johnson in 2007, but went winless and finished seventh in 2008.

Will Hamlin become the next near-champion to fall into a funk?

“A lot of times we get compared to guys who have done that or had high expectations, and we’ve always proved everyone wrong,” he says. “I’m really not concerned with it. I know we have a good enough team to stay at the top where we’re at.”

Hamlin has been on a steady climb toward the top since 2007. He finished third in points as a rookie in 2006 but slumped to 12th the following season.

Since then, he has finished eighth, fifth and second, respectively. His four-win season in 2009 set him up as a favorite to challenge Johnson last year, and he didn’t disappoint, winning a series-high eight races and finishing 31 points behind the five-time champion.

He is confident his team can sustain that momentum this season, and Hamlin says he feels less pressure this year than he did going into 2010.

“I think last year … there were probably more expectations than there are for myself for this year,” he said. “I think everybody is expecting a letdown year and obviously, for me, it’s not an option.

“I’m excited about the challenge. There is fuel there, whether I would have won the championship or not, to continue to be on top of the sport.”

For Hamlin, after coming so close, there is nowhere to go but up. Like Kevin Harvick, who finished third behind Johnson and Hamlin, it’s championship or bust.

“For me, it’s always championship or bust,” Hamlin said. “If I don’t win the championship, then I’ve taken a step back because I finished second in points. If I finish third, how am I going to consider that a successful year because I just took a step back from where I was last year?

“For me, there is only one more spot to move up and I’m going to go into this year with a whole lot more knowledge of what I need to do and what I need to work on from this point forward.”

“The thing that is exciting about this race team is that we’re still on an upswing,” Ford says. “They’ve somewhat plateaued and we got close [last] year.

“You look at what the potential is to improve [this] season and it’s very promising for us. I look at it as we got close but we’re not done.”