I’ve never been a great proponent of the old NASCAR (and indeed other sporting) cliché that you need to lose a championship before you can win one. I’ve always thought it was meant more as a salve, soothing the poor unfortunate who missed out rather than becoming a harbinger of what’s to come the following year. It seems, if you will, a little bit like a convenient excuse: a cop out to mask the sour stench of failure.
If you’re reading this article, chances are you don’t need reminding of just how spectacularly Denny Hamlin’s 2010 bid for the championship derailed over the final two weeks of the season – how he genuinely lost a title that was well within his grasp. Even the Hamlin haters would find it hard to deny that the denouement of 2010 was ridiculously tough to take for the Chesterfield, Va. native. It doesn’t matter how close he pushed Double J, a man who has, for all intents and purposes, looked utterly unbeatable this last half-decade come Chase time. The bottom line is Hamlin had it, only to lose it; and that’s tough to take.
Now, as we’ve seen in years past, the closest challenger to Johnson has tended to struggle the following season. In 2007, Jeff Gordon pushed Jimmie all the way, authoring a year replete with six wins and a staggering 30 top-10s. In 2008, Gordon made the Chase but went winless and never made a sustained run at the title. That same year, Carl Edwards was the closest challenger to the unstoppable Johnson, accumulating nine wins (including three of the final four Chase races) and 27 top-10s on the way to a runner-up spot. In 2009, Edwards finished a distant 11th, with no wins and just 14 top-10s. Cue Mark Martin, who that year climbed into the first loser position with five wins and seven poles. In 2010? Martin missed the Chase altogether.
They say statistics don’t lie, and from the evidence above it seemed likely that Hamlin would struggle with an “oh-so-close” hangover in 2011. So far, barring an epic turnaround that appears to be exactly what we’re seeing. A simple analysis of Hamlin’s results to date offer proof — just one win (at Michigan), a paltry four top-5s, 10 top-10s and 392 laps led. In fact, if the last nine races play out in similar fashion, Hamlin will end up with what will be his statistically poorest season since he began Cup racing in late 2005. No wonder it’s been awhile – months, even – since I’ve seen an #11in11 hash tag on Twitter.
So what’s gone wrong? Well, certainly, there’s been an element of misfortune running through Hamlin’s season with engine failures, pit-road miscues and plain, ol’-fashioned bad luck. In fact his race at Chicagoland, in the Chase opener, where he had to pit twice under green with mechanical and tire issues was a microcosm of the struggles he’s faced all season; sometimes, Lady Luck spins things out of control and you’re simply along for the ride. You could even trace it all the way back qualifying at Daytona, where Hamlin’s steering wheel wasn’t on properly and he plowed – in crazy manner – straight through the infield grass. In retrospect, this disaster was a huge sign of things to come for he and the entire No. 11 team.
Another element that has seemed to be awry is Hamlin’s relationship with crew chief Mike Ford – some of which probably still stems from Ford’s decisions in the final two races of 2010. Had Ford gambled on fuel at Phoenix (when it was clear others were) and made additional repairs to the smashed splitter Hamlin sustained after a spin through the grass following an ill-advised, three-wide situation in turn 4 at Homestead last season could have been oh-so-different. But it wasn’t. And that’s professional auto racing; it’s an unforgiving business at the best of times.
Anyone who watches Hamlin closely would note that there hasn’t been the same level of synchronicity between head wrench and driver this year and that, in a season where crew chief decisions are so important given the parity, is a huge negative point. There have been rumors of several “come to Jesus” style meetings at Joe Gibbs Racing between the two and at one point there was even talk of a crew chief swap with Greg Zipadelli. In this sort of business, every relationship runs its course and there’s probably a strong argument to suggest that if Hamlin flames out of the Chase (as does look extremely likely) then change should be made. It worked out for Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. right? Considering the struggles at the No. 20, too perhaps it’s the flip both Joey Logano and Hamlin need to right their ships. How many of us (me included) who tipped Logano to make the Chase feel a little stupid now?
Amidst this doom and gloom, though, there is at least a sliver of good news for Hamlin. It is possible to climb out of the early hole with nine races still remaining and a number of the upcoming Chase tracks are good for him (Martinsville, Texas, Charlotte, Homestead). He could quite conceivably go on a tear… but it just doesn’t seem likely. Already, with qualifying complete for the second race of the Chase at New Hampshire he sits 28th; that’s the worst effort any of the dozen title-contending drivers put forth. Recent history may show Hamlin is clearly a championship-caliber driver; he’s just not having a championship-winning year.
That’s an important distinction. Some argued that it would be better for Hamlin not to make the Chase, to focus on introducing the TRD engines to Joe Gibbs Racing (Hamlin has made the switch already, Busch and Logano will follow suit next year) and get ready for 2012. I can see this point, but I still think it’s better to be in then out. Not to mention, Hamlin has made the Chase in all six of his full seasons at the Cup level. It’s a mark only Jimmie Johnson can eclipse.
However it all works out these next nine weeks, the reality is Hamlin will not have had a “terrible” year. He will have won a race (at least one) and made the Chase. He may not challenge, but he has a platform to build on, plus the veteran has the knowledge that he can get it done when it counts – Miami in 2010 notwithstanding. He’ll be back strong next year… you can count on it.
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