In every episode of the hit Bravo TV show “Project Runway,” the delectable German Supermodel Heidi Klum makes the solemn proclamation that, "In Fashion, one day you're in. The next you're out."
Now, I realize you're probably wondering if you clicked onto the wrong website, or if the esteemed editors of Frontstretch are playing some kind of a joke… but hear me out. Yes, Project Runway is not a show I would expect to show up on too many NASCAR fans "can't miss TV" lists, but Heidi's famous line is one that has parallels to our own beloved sport because:
"In NASCAR, one day you're in. The next you're out."
If you’re in any doubt of that, just look into the mindset of Denny Hamlin, because the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Camry has had a nightmare start to 2008. Once the darling rookie of the Sprint Cup tour, Hamlin’s early season start has put him in the public spotlight for all the wrong reasons, with the focus not on championship contention but on staying relevant in the face of poor luck and increasing pressure. Now, I'm sure there are fans of Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, and even fans of Jacques Villeneuve who are wondering how I could be so “deluded;” but as a driver expected to contend for the title, anything less is a disappointment for the third-year wheelman.
Just ask Hamlin himself.
“It's frustrating,” he said of the current predicament following the race at Bristol last week. “I've got to be cursed."
How did a year that looked so promising on the eve of the season turn into one filled with frustration? With a win in the Gatorade Duels and solid test results, Hamlin's 2008 season looked to have an optimistic prognosis. But from the drop of the green at Daytona that Sunday, things turned the other way. Hamlin led 32 laps of the 500 and was looking strong… until Bobby Labonte pulled sharply from his pits and got into the No. 11's left rear quarterpanel. Hamlin faded out of contention after the incident and finished 17th, failing to capitalize on his momentum from the Duel.
The following week, in the “California 24,” it took just 15 laps for
fate to intervene. Running through turn three, the No. 11 hit a weeper, slid up the track, and slammed the outside wall hard. The crew put the car back out onto the track, but the damage was done; Hamlin finished 41st, some 57 laps off the pace.
His Vegas luck was not to prove much better. Starting 27th with a poor car, Hamlin went a lap down early on and had to battle hard for the Lucky Dog. With 95 to go, he got it back and drove to a ninth place finish - surely one of the harder Top 10s of the young man’s budding career. The next week in Atlanta, for a second race in succession, Hamlin couldn't stay on the lead lap thanks in part to a blistering start from Dale Junior. With 100 laps to go, his power steering gave up the ghost, but the No. 11 made up five spots to finish a creditable 15th, still one lap down.
Clearly, the results were not what this team expected early on. But perhaps Bristol — despite being Hamlin’s best finish of the season — has proved the most aggravating of all.
First, we must rewind to the 2007 Spring race at the track. Hamlin led 177 laps in that one and, in so far as you can be at the half-mile bullring, was looking good for the win. But disaster struck with sixteen to go, as a fuel pickup issue off the restart saw Hamlin’s competition stream past and his chance for the win evaporate. Twelve months later, Hamlin was again fast from the drop of the green, marching from 12th to lead 100 laps. But when a Dario Franchitti spin brought out the caution, Montoya inexplicably failed to slow, and he nudged Hamlin up the track into the path of the luckless Casey Mears.
Several trips down pit road later, Hamlin was 16th, but crucially still on the lead lap. Again, he drove to the front, with the No. 11 assuming the lead with just ten to go. But when a green-white-checkered finish forced overtime, Hamlin brought the field to the line… only to see the fuel pump pickup issue strike again, causing him to fade to sixth by the finish. In a Thunder Valley second, Hamlin’s chance for victory was gone.
So is Hamlin's horrible start just a temporary blip, or is he experiencing a full-blown Junior Jinx? Well, as they say, let's consider the evidence. From the moment he arrived in Cup, with 3 Top 10s in the final seven races of 2005, Hamlin's been about as consistent as a Martinsville Grandfather Clock. He averages a Top 5 finish every four events, and a Top 10 finish every other start. The talent is not only there, it’s been proven; Hamlin’s performance in bringing ill-handling cars to the front — most recently in Texas last November — has showcased his growing versatility behind the wheel.
But equipment really isn’t going to be an issue this year, as JGR's switch to Toyota has been about as seamless as could be expected (power steering and fuel pickup issues notwithstanding). The upcoming schedule also works in Hamlin's favor, as he has a history of success at the next three tracks. He's picked up four Top 10 finishes in five tries at both Martinsville and Texas, and he’s come home third in two of the last three Phoenix races. There is every chance that the sixth place at Bristol is the start of a promising spell of starts, and not just a gilt edged chance at a win.
Another positive for Hamlin is having one of the best in the business atop the pit box. Mike Ford is a seasoned campaigner who knows how the game of NASCAR is played. He's not going to panic, but he's not averse to taking a gamble; witness the two tire call to set the Fedex Camry on the way to his 2007 win at Loudon. His demeanor is exactly what is needed to keep the team calm during this slump.
With that in mind, it’s hard to agree with Hamlin’s self-assessment that he’s “cursed;” actually, it seems he’s got a lot of facts pointing in favor of a rebound. But at the same time, all the very best drivers are able to overcome adversity. Nothing in NASCAR is handed to you on a silver platter; you have to scrap and fight for every point, and Hamlin would do well do recognize that fact. Yes, it's not been the best start, but it could be a lot worse; however, Hamlin has volunteered to ride this emotional roller coaster before. A few incidents in the past year have reminded us Hamlin is still young; publicly calling out his pit crew in Darlington last May led to some dissension within the team, and an on-track conflict turned ugly with Kyle Petty caused Hamlin to lose his patience, a necessity for a younger driver to have when things don’t go his way.
As much as anything, a positive attitude and no more mentions of curses will be crucial heading into Martinsville. Running the number 15 truck for Billy Ballew on the Saturday afternoon may provide a welcome change of pace for a driver that can sometimes let the emotions get to his head; and with the tough road ahead, he’ll need to clear his mind. While 15th in points isn’t bad, history has shown that only two or three drivers outside the Top 12 five races in come back and make the Chase; lumped in a pack that includes Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson, competition will doubtless be fierce to slide back onto the right side of the playoff race.
But when all is said and done, there are still 21 races to run before the Chase field is set, and there can be little doubt that Hamlin has everything he needs to make it — if both luck and logic prevail. Paraphrasing Heidi Klum once more, "In NASCAR, one day you're in, the next you're out." But at the same time, the statement works in reverse - one day you're out, the next you're in. When the next off weekend rolls around, it will be interesting to see which version of the statement applies best to Hamlin's season before the great leveler that is Talladega.
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