The Frontstretch: Racing to the Point: A Star’s Sudden And Painful Decline by Brett Poirier -- Tuesday August 6, 2013

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Racing to the Point: A Star’s Sudden And Painful Decline

Racing to the Point · Brett Poirier · Tuesday August 6, 2013


Do you remember that moment when Denny Hamlin’s Chase chances ended at Martinsville in the fall of 2012?

Like his car, Denny Hamlin seems to have spent this season on a flatbed.

Hamlin was at arguably his best track with an opportunity to close the gap on championship contenders Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson when his car suddenly lost power. Hamlin kept making laps, and occasionally the car would creep back up to speed only to slow down — inspiring hope and then taking it away again.

It was agonizing to watch, whether you are a fan of Hamlin or his worst enemy (maybe Joey Logano). Little did we know that it was just a sign of what was to come for 2013.

Hamlin’s wreck at Pocono on Sunday highlighted just how low one of the sport’s brightest stars has fallen. Fourteen laps in, the No. 11 got loose in Turn 3, slid up the track and plastered the wall with the right side. The team didn’t even attempt to send him back out (how often do you see that?) and Hamlin finished 43rd with his fifth DNF of the season.

This is the same driver who used to put Johnson to shame at the Tricky Triangle. From 2006-10, Hamlin tallied seven top-fives in 10 races at Pocono with four victories.

Still, for those who have watched Hamlin’s struggles this year, Sunday’s result wasn’t much of a surprise. Hamlin is wrecking Joe Gibbs Racing cars at a higher rate than J.J. Yeley did in his rookie season. That’s a lot of bent sheet metal. Some of it has certainly been bad luck (primarily blown tires), but other moments seem as if the world-class driver stepped out for a second and Kyle Petty jumped into the seat. Hamlin turning hard into the outside wall at Daytona on his own accord and the Pocono wreck fall into that second category.

And speaking of Petty, he is the reason Hamlin was in the news on Monday. Hamlin tweeted that Petty was a “moron” before strapping in for his 14 laps at Pocono, and then threw Petty under the bus again afterward, primarily with the line, “I’ve won enough races and I got here on hard work and winning. I didn’t get here like he got here.”

And that’s been 2013 in a nutshell for Hamlin. His headlines have all pretty much come off the track, from getting fined unjustly for criticizing the car at Phoenix, to his verbal sparring with Joey Logano after Bristol, to the fallout from the incident with Logano at Fontana and the resulting back injury, and now this pointless bickering with Petty. (Kyle Busch has been on his best behavior for JGR, by the way.)

All Monday’s Hamlin-Petty story did was shed more light on what a miserable season Hamlin is having. And who could’ve ever pictured this? Hamlin has made the playoffs in every season since his rookie campaign in 2006 and has even come close to championships, particularly in 2010. He has been the model of dependability, a safe bet to contend for titles year after year. The injuries he sustained at Fontana sidelined the Gibbs driver for four races, so it wouldn’t be fair to expect another Chase appearance this season given the circumstances, but in the last seven races, he hasn’t placed better than 18th. The Chase was a long shot, but so was Hamlin staying locked into 25th in the Sprint Cup standings.

It’s incomparable to any sudden decline that I can remember in NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled mightily early on with Hendrick and Kevin Harvick had a really rough season with Richard Childress Racing, but neither featured the amount of off-track drama and hard hits on track that we are seeing here.

Hamlin isn’t 100 percent, and I’m not the first person to say that, but I’m not talking about physically, but rather psychologically. His back might be bothering him physically, but at this point I believe that is playing less of a role than what he has going on in his head. Reporters and analysts have been clamoring for Hamlin to step out of his ride against his wishes and he hasn’t felt comfortable with the setups put under him lately.

“Lately, it’s not been good,” Hamlin told ESPN reporter David Newton after Pocono. “It’s been a handful. We’ve been qualifying OK, but as soon as we get in traffic and the race starts we go dead backwards and loose.

“Just a very frustrating season. We’re kind of outside of our normal box of setups and so we’re trying to get better for next year, but obviously we need some track time to do that.”

His wall time has really taken away from that track time. And hitting the wall as hard as he has, as often as he has, can’t be having a positive effect on the 32-year-old driver. Hamlin could easily just walk away from this nightmare, get surgery on the disc problem in his back, and be ready for next year. Petty’s right about that healing Hamlin physically, but what about psychologically? If he announced he was walking away today, what would his confidence level be like at the start of 2014 knowing that he wrecked practically everything he drove in 2013, and his team fell way behind in the search for the right setup without him?

That would leave the chance that the nightmare follows Hamlin to next season. Instead, he is facing it head on — usually how he heads toward the wall — and it would be surprising if more jarring hits and pointless squabbles weren’t in his future, while he searches for what is missing — setup wise and psychologically.

And it’ll be agonizing to watch.

Contact Brett Poirier

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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08/06/2013 04:08 AM

He needs to take the rest of the year off and heal up. Maybe spend quality time with his young family.

If he wants to continue to damage his body further by racing while not fully recovered, that’s his prerogative.

08/06/2013 08:11 AM

Never been a huge fan of his…but I hope he gets better. Physically and on the track. It would be good for both him and the sport.

Bill B
08/06/2013 09:52 AM

I keep wondering why he won’t step down, get his back dealt with, have a long time to recouperate and come back 100% next year.
I don’t buy your theory about wanting to build positive momentum before he steps down. I believe he is insecure and he is afraid that if he steps down and they put a replacement driver in who does phenomenally well, that he will lose his ride.
I think his fears are unfounded and he is risking his health to ease his insecurity.
Playing hurt would make sense only if he still had a chance to make the chase at this point.

Michael in SoCal
08/06/2013 10:53 AM

One thing odd about Denny not stepping out of the 11 for the year is the fact that JGR has two Sprint Cup drivers in their Nationwide cars who could take over for the injured Hamlin. Although with Vickers slated for MWR’s 55 next season, I’d suspect they’d turn to Elliot Sadler if needed.

08/06/2013 11:00 AM

I don’t quite understand the pot shot about Kyle Petty’s driving ability. He will be the first to tell you he wasn’t a great racecar driver, so that was a bit childish.

I don’t see why the outrage about Hamlin staying in the car. His doctor says it’s ok for him to drive, so he’s going to do it. He’s a racer and that’s what he does for a living and it’s his life. You take that away from him and you might as well put him in a cage until next February. He’s having a rough year because the team knows they have to push harder than ever before to gain ground on other teams. In doing so, they’ve had some hiccups, especially with their experimental setup this weekend at Pocono. I think once the Chase starts, this team will back it down a notch and be back to competing for Top 5’s on a weekly basis to prepare for 2014.

Robert Eastman
08/06/2013 12:43 PM

As “the Face of FEDEX” Denny Hamlin is doing a Great Job promoting UPS! In Marketing 101 (actually in Marketing preschool) one learns to never-ever offend vast numbers of prospects and then expect to succeed.
Calling anyone “a moron” via mass-media is a sure-fire formula for getting terminated, especially in a “high profile environment.”
The Petty Klan is one of the most loved families of NASCAR! Denny Hamlin’s disrespect for Kyle Petty founder and fund-raiser for Victory Junction Gang Camp in memory of his son Adam, offended many fans.
If I was using FEDEX, I would immediately switch to UPS and let FEDEX know the reason. Anyone evaluating the verbal assaults by Mr. Hamlin knows who “the Real Moron” IS!

08/06/2013 01:00 PM

I’m not his doctor or his employer, but from what I have seen Hamlin needs that surgery. I can’t imaging trying to drive a car 200 mph on the edge with constant back pain.

08/06/2013 01:55 PM

Well said Robert !

08/06/2013 08:59 PM

I ALWAYS viewed Hamlin being the resident bully at JGR and the one with the most unreasonable ego(yup, I think he tops Kyle B). His mouth keeps proving it over and over again. He was a bully to Logano since he started and he continues to insult in a very unmanly way via twitter in a most moronic fashion. As for being a spokesperson for FEDEX I agree with Robert 200%. Go UPS!