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?
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.
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