2006 Ride: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet
2006 Primary Sponsor: FedEx Express
2006 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2006 Crew Chief: Mike Ford
2006 Stats: 36 races, 2 wins, 8 top fives, 20 top 10s, 3 poles, third in points
High Point: The entire 2006 Nextel Cup season truly could be considered Hamlin’s high point, with a first-year performance that equaled what many drivers accomplish over their whole career. The Rookie of the Year honoree gave a warning signal that he was going to make a name for himself before the curtain had even been fully lifted on the season, winning this year’s Bud Shootout, the exhibition race held the week before the Daytona 500.
After the non-points victory, the rookie sensation added two others in June and July, both at Pocono Raceway, as icing on the cake. Consistent all season long, Hamlin’s rookie success peaked with an invitation to this year’s Chase for the Championship, the first rookie to accomplish such a feat in the three-year history of the playoffs.
Low Point: There was very little for Joe Gibbs Racing, FedEx or Hamlin to get down about, as every goal for the team heading into this year was achieved to the fullest – and then some. Of course, no season is ever perfect; hopes of Hamlin capturing the championship as a rookie were dashed before the playoffs were even halfway complete. In the fourth race of the Chase at Talladega, Hamlin got caught up in a couple of accidents that relegated him to 21st in the finishing order, dropping him from second to fifth in points and putting his title chances on life support.
The charmed season took another hit the following week at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, when the No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet was damaged in a first-lap wreck and spent 60 laps in the garage for repairs. The resultant 28th-place finish dropped Hamlin to sixth place in the standings and a daunting 137 points behind the points leader with only five races remaining; in the end, that was too much of a deficit to recover from.
Summary: Hamlin’s season was incredible, one that certainly could not have been predicted based on just 36 previous starts in both the Busch and Craftsman Truck series combined. Though he showed promise when he moved into the FedEx ride for the final seven races of 2005, Hamlin’s uncanny ability to master and consistently compete with the frontrunners at all types of tracks didn’t get put on full display until this magical 36-race exhibition that should stay in the rookie record books for quite sometime.
From the first race of the season until the season finale at Homestead, impressive driving solidified Hamlin as a legitimate talent deserving of a Nextel Cup ride for years to come.
2007 Outlook: With the FedEx team remaining intact for the coming season, expectations are high. Hamlin needs only to fear the legendary sophomore jinx that inexplicably strikes so many drivers after posting great rookie seasons. JGR is a solid organization that not only had Hamlin performing well, but also possesses two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart, who seemed to regain his form at the end of 2006.
An excellent team and sponsor combined with a driver that will be even more familiar and comfortable with his surroundings the second time around could spell even bigger accomplishments in 2007 for this promising youngster.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
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