Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday May 14, 2007
As Denny Hamlin exited his car late Sunday afternoon, those in attendance witnessed a sight rarely seen from a driver known more for kicking back than lashing out. Laced with frustration, gone was the playful look that has Hamlin as endearing to his fans as Carl Edwards; gone was the lightheartedness that he carries around without hesitation. Unfortunately, this was not going to be an interview that ended with a smile; no matter which way you sliced the bread, this man wasn't going home with a trophy in his handsâ€¦and he wasn't happy.
Rarely does an interview for a second place finisher turn out so bitter. But when the team finishing in front of you has beaten you five times in a row, it's easy to wonder whether second place really is the first loser.
"Pretty mad," was the young man's tense reaction to a second place finish, another oh-so-close performance in a year that's quickly adding up to wins that might have been instead of actual hardware lining his trophy case. The fact Hamlin won Friday night's Busch race going away didn't much matter; it's the Cup race that makes the difference for him nowadays, a second year driver clearly focused on perpetually overachieving.
"It seemed like the best car all day," was the driver's reaction to his car's performance. "We just made a mistake on pit road."
Ah, pit road. In the continual battle of Hendrick versus everyone else when it comes to the Car of Tomorrow, that's really where the battle has been won or lost. In the grand scheme of things, Hendrick cars have led the most laps in just one of the five Car of Tomorrow events; in comparison, Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing organization has led the most in three, with the No. 11 Chevy pacing the field for a race-high 179 circuits at Darlington. Once again, a Car of Tomorrow event looked like Hamlin's to lose, as for much of the race's first half his car was in another time zone. While the Hendrick cars battled an increasingly tight condition, Hamlin's only condition he was considering was how to keep his composure after giving a rousing speech in support of Virginia Tech after hitting Victory Lane.
Then, out of nowhere came the mistake.
"It was on the right front," explained Hamlin about the pit stop with 60 laps left that changed the complexion of his race. "Whatever the problem was, I noticed our right side was jacked up when guys were taking off. I think we came in second on that pit stopâ€¦it was probably a lug nut issue or something like that."
Two lug nuts, in fact, on the right front of the race car that fell to the ground, much to the tire changer's chagrin. Six extra seconds later, Hamlin found himself 15th instead of 2nd, leaving a hole that would ultimately prove too much to make up.
"When you’re in contention for these wins, it’s all about just not making mistakes, not going out there and doing an 11-second stop," vented Hamlin. "You don’t need that. As fast as our car was if we lost one or two spots on pit road, I can get that back. But I can’t get 15 back. I got 14, but not 15."
It's hard not to feel for a man who has gone through a similar type of experience more than once this year. At Martinsville, this same loose lugnut scenario cost him track position and ultimately, a shot at the win; Hamlin finished third. At Phoenix, it was Hamlin's fault; speeding on pit road pushed him to the back of the longest line and in an awful position to make up time; again, he finished third. Needless to say, it's getting to the point that if Hamlin could go all 500 miles without making a pit stop, he'd likely steer clear.
"It just goes on and on every week," as Hamlin's frustration continued to spew throughout the infield. "It’s just the same story. We’re at a different race track and I’m here talking about the exact same things."
Of course, at the same time Hamlin makes late race mistakes, the Hendrick cars catch fire, with crew chiefs figuring out the right adjustments at exactly the right times. In terms of laps led in Car of Tomorrow races, Gibbs is laying the smackdown on the rest of the field; they've led a total of 973 laps to 615 for Hendrick, with Hamlin having led 563 laps all by himself. There's no doubt that with the Car of Tomorrow, Gibbs has clearly done their homework.
But when you take those totals and focus on the last 100 laps of each race, everything changes around completely. The totals in that category - drumroll, please - Hendrick cars have led 311 laps, while Gibbs has paced the field for 152. The answer here is simple; the Gibbs cars have a leg up once the green flag drops, but by the end of the race the Hendrick brains on pit road have their cars in position to win, while the Gibbs group makes some painful mistakes, pit road, mechanically, or otherwise.
Squandering that momentum is a dangerous thing; think of Greg Biffle and the similar type of situation he was in last year. All throughout March, April, and May, the No. 16 was the class of the field in several races, only to squander the win in various ways each and every time. By June, their momentum was gone, and a downward slide began which saw Biffle miss the Chase even though he led more laps than nearly anyone else for the majority of the season. Team chemistry fell apart amongst frustration and a loss of morale that ended up costing Doug Richert his job at the end of the year.
Hamlin knows that danger.
"I’m not going to bash my guys," he insisted. "They help me out a lot over the course of this year. Unfortunately, we got hurt at the wrong times."
Lucky for Hamlin, he didn't have to go far heal his own pain; his mother was one of several in attendance to serve as grand marshal of today's event.
That turned out perfect, as after this Mother's Day debacle, Hamlin clearly looked like a guy in need of his mom. Frankly, if my team kept shooting itself in the foot, I'd feel the same way.
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