2008 Ride: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2008 Primary Sponsor: FedEx
2008 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2008 Crew Chief: Mike Ford
Stats: 36 races, 1 win, 12 top fives, 18 top 10s, 1 pole, eighth in points
Best Finish: Win – Goody’s Cool Orange 500, Martinsville (spring)
High Point: A “hometown” win at Martinsville – where Denny Hamlin spent some formative years racing late models – was probably the high point, but the runner-up would probably be the momentum he carried into the Chase after three consecutive third-place finishes. Man, how quickly that “mo” disappeared when the playoffs began for real…
Low Point: Without question the first race at Richmond, where Hamlin led an almost flawless 381 of the first 382 laps in front of a hometown crowd (AJ Allmendinger led one lap under caution). But in the midst of one of the most impressive performances in NASCAR history, tragedy struck with a slow punctured tire, causing Hamlin’s fade to a 24th-place finish. I asked at the time if there have been many other examples of such a tough luck end to a dominating race, and since it’s the offseason, I figured I’d ask again; let me know below if you have any thoughts.
Summary: It was a topsy-turvy, roller coaster of a season for the Chesterfield, Va. native, with spells of fine results combined with stretches of immense mediocrity and poor runs. Hamlin had top-10 finishes in half the races (not a bad average) but he never really put it all together in 2008, and for a second straight year became a complete non-factor in the Chase.
After a mediocre first four races that included a 41st-place finish in Fontana thanks to a dreaded weeper, Hamlin was unlucky not to finish atop the pack at Bristol (he finished sixth) before the win at Martinsville in March. That was followed by a fifth-place and two third-place runs where the team appeared to be establishing momentum; however, four top 10s in the next 12 races quickly sent Hamlin in the other direction, putting him on the verge of missing the Chase.
But when all seemed lost, three straight third place finishes saw Hamlin right the ship and head into his third consecutive Chase with that all-important confidence – as well as the equally less tangible momentum factor.
Ninth place at Loudon was an OK start to the postseason, but a 38th-place finish at Dover the following week left him 193 points back in last place. 11th at Kansas was not enough to close that gap, and Hamlin needed a miracle at Talladega to turn things around. Instead, he got the exact opposite when a tire blew as he led the pack into turn 2, sending the FedEx Toyota slamming into the wall instead. When compared to some of the other hard hits this year, it says something about the ferocity and suddenness of the impact that Hamlin spent the night in the hospital.
When all was said and done, he finished out the Chase with three top fives and 13th-, 16th- and 17th-place finishes, ending the season eighth overall in the standings (470 behind) and just a few ticks ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Tony Stewart (ninth, 482 back) and Kyle Busch (10th, 498 in arrears).
Team Ranking: Second place behind Busch and just a fraction ahead of the departing soon-to-be team owner Stewart.
Off-Track News: Hey FedEx, nice work on the Denny commercials.
2009 Outlook: There’s no doubt Hamlin is a talented driver, but after a terrific third-place finish in his 2006 rookie season (and a solid chance to win the title headed into Homestead) he’s had two straight stinkers in the Chase. As Hamlin notes himself, “We can’t keep having years where we excel during the regular season or what have you, and when the Chase starts, we go right to the bottom of the list… we definitely have to change that.”
Listening to the guy, at times this season you’d believe he is the victim of the most rotten luck in the sport; but the longer I’m involved with NASCAR, the more I believe that you make your own luck. Already, we’re hearing grumbling from Denny about not getting what he needs for next season. Well, if he’s not careful, the 28-year-old might find he’s already peaked. No question, next year will be a huge season for the driver of the No. 11.
All told, Hamlin should still make the Chase for a fourth straight year. What happens in the final 10 is anyone’s guess, though, and it might just go a long way to defining his future in NASCAR.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: B-
2008 Grade: B