Danny Peters · Tuesday February 22, 2011
This Sunday afternoon, after all the hoopla and ballyhoo of the Great American Race and the heartwarming win for 20-year-old Trevor Bayne, the Sprint Cup circuit will return to the more prosaic grind of regular weekly racing. Next up is Phoenix International Raceway, a mile-long flat track home to the penultimate race in the Chase this year.
For one driver in particular, though, it might just feel like the return to the scene of a crime.
Say what you will about Denny Hamlin’s last race at Homestead — a poor qualifying spot and an early rash move prompting damage which was never fully repaired — the simple truth is that when looking back on his 2010 campaign, the fatal championship damage was inflicted in the desert. Just the previous week, don’t forget, Hamlin had won a thriller in Texas that included a Gordon–Burton scuffle; a No. 48/No. 24 mid-race pit crew swap; a perfectly executed last lap pass to take the checkers and some pretty pointed, ultimately ill-advised, comments from the usually taciturn Mike Ford on the subject of his driver, team and their chances for the title. The momentum, it seemed, had shifted inexorably to the No. 11 car with just two racing mountains to climb until their goal. That last part’s always the hardest, though, and as we know now it wasn’t to be; Hamlin had to pit late for a splash of gas at Phoenix, costing him a crucial eleven or so spots in the race.
At the time, some criticized Hamlin for his reaction on exiting the car; he threw a water bottle at his vehicle with quite some degree of venom. To me, that was OK. Show your emotions: this is auto racing we’re talking about, not flipping checkers. But the reality was a massive chance to secure the title had been lost. Had Hamlin held serve and finished second at PIR, behind the hard-charging Carl Edwards, Homestead would have been a significantly easier race. Something like 25th place would have been enough… coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Ironically, given the disaster that befell Hamlin at the denouement of the 2010 season at Phoenix, he’ll probably be pleased to be exiting the high banks of Daytona and heading westward after what can best be described as a pretty miserable Speedweeks. It all started when he crossed the stripe first in the Budweiser Shootout – an event Hamlin won at his first time of asking in 2006, as a rookie. But after doing so this time, he was stripped of the victory as he’d crossed the yellow line to advance his position. Then, in qualifying for the 500, there was a steering wheel issue which prompted Hamlin’s number No. 11 machine to turn straight left through the grass rather than heading out onto the fresh asphalt. Plus, he went for a pretty wild spin in qualifying.
On Sunday, during the big race Hamlin laid back for much of the day – in an attempt to avoid the inevitable carnage – and charged to the front in the last quarter of the race. Hooked up to Ryan Newman and leading laps, suddenly the No. 11 looked shot out of a cannon, perfectly poised for a shot at the Harley J. Earl trophy at the finish. But it wasn’t to be for the Chesterfield, VA native when he was swept up in a mess not of his causing triggered by Robby Gordon, a car who slammed Tony Stewart into Kurt Busch and, in turn, Regan Smith. Hamlin had nowhere to go, which meant he limped home to a 21st-place finish, one lap down and one place behind Steven Wallace.
Said Hamlin after: “It’s frustrating because we executed our plan and were right in it with five or so to go.” In short, then, it was not the start Hamlin was looking for, not by any stretch of the imagination.
So as the circuit heads to the west coast how are the man’s chances for a 2011 Sprint Cup title shaping up? Well, from the point of view of this humble scribe, if anyone can overtake the robotic Johnson, it’s Hamlin. Let’s review the evidence for why this year could be the one. There’s every reason to think Joe Gibbs Racing as a team will be strong, and having teammates like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano adds to that cohesion. In an era of pit road drama, Hamlin’s entire over the wall crew returns, showcasing stability – and let’s not forget this team won the 2010 Pit Crew Challenge pretty handily. Mike Ford, despite some suggesting it wouldn’t be the case, returns atop the pit box and he will certainly have learned his lesson – albeit the hard way – with regard to commenting on the No. 48 team. In addition, Hamlin, considered a flat track expert, won on intermediate-banked tracks at Michigan, Texas and also Darlington, proving he can win on ovals not shaped like paperclips or triangles.
And for what it’s worth, the sponsors seem to agree that Hamlin is still very much a viable threat, considering he was one of just two NASCAR drivers (Kyle Busch being the other) retained for the Gillette Young Guns program. Perhaps most intriguing of all, though, was the partnership with NBA legend Michael Jordan completed in just the last couple of weeks.
“Denny’s confidence and passion for racing, along with his determination for excellence on the track make him a valuable addition to the Jordan Brand,” said the man himself in a press release announcing the deal. With that said, no prizes are ever given out for shiny new sponsor logos, but it is indicative of the view of the driver inside the general marketplace.
Most importantly of all, Hamlin has now properly lost a Cup title that was his for the taking. That sort of stinging misery can be tough to come back from, but the Denny Hamlin you see today — as opposed to the one that yes, let’s be fair bitched, whined and moaned far too much from a few years back — is a driver who now knows exactly what it takes. He knows where he fell short, he knows what he needs to fix said shortcomings, and it’s my belief he will do just that and win the title this season. At some point, the great drivers are defined by how they overcome adversity, finding a way to “get it done.” And if you look at the body of work from Hamlin in the past couple of seasons (12 wins, 29 top 5s, 38 top 10s, 2,564 laps led) the cold, hard stats would suggest he has the ability, the experience and the know-how to do just that and finally accomplish this mission when it matters most.
One final point: I’m all in favor of great NASCAR advertising, but that Mikey Waltrip Elvis butt wiggle thing in the NAPA spot should never have made it past the creative concepts stage. That’s something no self-respecting race fan needs to see. Seriously.
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