2007 Ride: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet
2007 Primary Sponsor: FedEx
2007 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2007 Crew Chief: Mike Ford
Stats: 36 races, one win, 12 top fives, 18 top 10s, one pole, 12th in points.
High Points: Hamlin’s lone win of the season came at Loudon this July, and was definitely the high point for the season as much as finishing positions were concerned. Leading 46 laps, Hamlin outdueled the Hendrick Motorsports crowd to finally cash in on a Car of Tomorrow victory after falling short to Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson on several occasions in the spring.
Low Point: The Chase. With the driver points being reset after Richmond and Gordon’s 359-point lead over the third-place Hamlin reduced to just 50, the 2006 Raybestos Rookie of the Year’s 2007 expectations for a championship run collapsed around him. During the 10-race chase, the sophomore Cup driver finished the year out with only three top-10 finishes, as he became plagued by accidents, mental lapses and mechanical failure.
Summary: As a JGR development driver Hamlin exhibited an uncanny smoothness and ability to bring his equipment home unscathed. His season-ending third-place finish in Nextel Cup points in 2006, as a rookie is a testament to Hamlin’s abilities. Yet in 2007 he on numerous occasions received condemnation from such NASCAR notables as Kyle Petty and JGR teammate Tony Stewart for his unbridled aggression and lack of focus behind the wheel.
Considering Hamlin’s “storybook” rookie season, wherein the young driver appeared to be incapable of doing any wrong, 2007 has demonstrated that he is in fact fallible. Though his performance did not equal 2006, Hamlin did make the Chase, and add his name to the illustrious list of drivers who have conquered Darlington, the track known as “too tough to tame.”
2008 Outlook: In 2006 Hamlin became the only rookie to have ever qualified for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. And though his implosion during the Chase in ’07 is noteworthy, in all probability it is nothing more than an anomaly and not indicative of future performance. Now with two full seasons of experience at the Cup level, look for Hamlin to be a mainstay as a top-10 driver.
The biggest question mark facing Hamlin and his FedEx team in 2008 will be with the new Toyota power plants that JGR will be switching to for next season. How fast engine head engine builder Mark Cronquist and the rest of the JGR engine department can tweak the existing engines to provide a semblance of the horsepower and dependability that they found with their Chevrolet’s will impact Hamlin next season more than anything else.
Look for Hamlin to finish the pre-Chase portion of the season outside of the top six or eight as glitches in the switchover to the ‘Yota’s impact him early – but in the Chase nonetheless.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: B-