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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Will Denny Hamlin’s Supposed “Bad Luck” Derail a Promising Career?

“I think luck is the sense to recognize an opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it. The man who can smile at his breaks and grab his chances gets on.” – Samuel Goldwyn

There is a tendency in sport, from the highest echelon to the lowest, most grassroots level, to accentuate the short term, focusing on what just happened or what is happening rather than looking at the bigger picture. A driver guiltier of that than most is the wheelman of the No. 11 FedEx Camry – Denny Hamlin – but after a pair of shocking races, short and term are two words the Virginia native would do well not to let pass his lips in the near future. Two more he should also avoid are “bad” and “luck,” because it seems in the last couple of years we’ve heard those two small words escape Hamlin’s lips a few too many times for his liking.

Let’s review. At Dover, Hamlin had a quality piece and was hard-charging in second place, behind leader Jimmie Johnson, when a right front tire exploded, sending his car hard into the wall and a 36th-place finish. Afterward, Hamlin was typically pessimistic: “I keep thinking our luck just has to change, but then something like a cut tire happens and I am not so sure,” he said. “We had a really good car and good race going at Dover – it always seems to work out that things go bad when we seem to be running well and near the front.”

This past weekend at the Tricky Triangle, Hamlin fared even worse, as a fuel-pump problem saw the Joe Gibbs racer unable to complete so much as a lap before bringing out the caution and having to be pushed back to the garage. Hamlin returned to the track after some quick repairs… only to bring out a second caution just 13 laps into the 200-lap event. The frustration evident in his voice afterwards at what he knew would be a second straight horrible finish – he wound up 38th, 22 laps down – epitomized what Hamlin perceives as unrelenting bad luck.

Compounding matters, the No. 11 car was the fastest in final practice at a track where the five-year veteran has excelled. At Pocono, he swept both races in his rookie season, and has recorded two further third-place efforts and a sixth-place finish in his seven attempts. “Shocking,” as Michael Waltrip said on This Week in NASCAR. “I couldn’t believe it,” echoed Greg Biffle on the same broadcast in response to Hamlin’s first-lap horror show. Crew chief for Hamlin, the veteran Mike Ford, was more forthright in his opinions: “It was just unacceptable. It’s not the first time we’ve had fuel issues – across all three cars. It’s just plain unacceptable and it should never happen.”

But it does.

So, is this bad luck becoming an epidemic, or is Hamlin simply overreacting to a couple of off weekends? Looking back on the last season and a half, you can certainly see what he’s talking about. Hamlin led 296 of 500 laps, the most in the race, at Martinsville in March before Jimmie Johnson ran him down, moved the No. 11 car out of the racing groove, and drove off to victory. “Yeah, it sucks that you didn’t win,” said Hamlin, “but things don’t always fall our way; and today, they didn’t.”

Then, there’s Richmond… where Hamlin’s confidence problems appeared to begin last May. A year ago, he absolutely crushed the competition, leading 381 of 382 laps (AJ Allmendinger led the other under caution) before a slow tire puncture wrecked what was looking to be as perfect a day as you can have as a Sprint Cup driver. This year, Hamlin dominated again, leading 148 laps before a litany of problems that began with a pit-road miscue (something of an Achilles heel, at times, for the No. 11 team) ruined his home-track race a second straight year. Coach Gibbs was sympathetic in the post-race press conference – although words can only do so much. “He’s been real, real good here. He loves this place,” he explained. “Hopefully, at some point, he’s gonna get one. I know at this point, he’s really disappointed now.”

You can also point to Bristol as being another circuit Hamlin hasn’t had the proverbial “rub of the green.” In 2008, a fuel-pump issue cost him with just two laps to go; then, this year, he couldn’t quite get to Kyle Busch (but I think even the most devoted Hamlin fan would find it hard to argue against his teammate’s 378 laps led.) Even still, these examples prove to be wins on the table – wins the fourth-year driver sorely needs as he looks to gain a confidence boost and put his season back on track.

Overall, it’s hard to argue against the logic that Hamlin has had some tough luck, but it’s worth remembering it’s extremely hard to win a Sprint Cup race. With his total of four wins, Hamlin sits tied for 71st on the all-time wins list. It doesn’t sound particularly lofty, but that’s 71st of all drivers who’ve raced at the Cup level since 1948, on par with the likes of Michael Waltrip, Ken Schrader, Joe Nemechek and Morgan Shepherd. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take a deep breath and count your blessings … and for Hamlin, he’s had plenty in between this “bad luck.”

So, despite all the mutterings of curses and doom and gloom, I’d suggest Hamlin does exactly that. After years of moaning, the time has come for him to stop bleating about luck and to start taking advantage of the many resources at his disposal. Confidence is a crucial element for a top-level racecar driver, and if Hamlin concentrates more on getting the job done and less on his supposed bad luck – along with the fine folk at JGR fixing these fuel pump issues – chances are the results he craves will come in abundance.

In the meantime, this man’s glass is already half full. He’s in first class equipment with a top drawer crew chief – not to mention sponsor – and is senior driver for a top-four team. Life could be an awful lot worse in Sprint Cup… just ask the driver of the No. 88 car. So yes, it’s been an awful couple of weeks and a precipitous slide from fifth to 12th in points, but Hamlin can recover as quickly as he has slumped, starting this weekend in the Irish Hills.

The simple fact of the matter is that Hamlin is an incredibly talented driver, one of the best to strap into a Sprint Cup seat each weekend. Sure, he has had some tough luck, but then Carl Edwards would probably say much the same based on his combined 0-27 start to the season. Elliott Sadler might argue likewise about the timing of the rain at the Daytona 500, and let’s not even mention poor Scott Riggs, who would rather ride his lawnmower than start and park. Luck may be a lady, as the incomparable old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, once sang, but it’s also relative. And while Hamlin might have had a couple more wins, he’s still sitting pretty when looking at the big picture. This is a driver, don’t forget, who has made the Chase in each of his three full seasons, and a driver who very well could have won the lot in his first year running the big dance.

Can Hamlin win a Sprint Cup crown? On talent alone, yes he can. But the level of competition, be it from teammate Busch or the mob over at Hendrick Motorsports, make it a tall order, at least for now. So, Hamlin would do well to look at the quote atop this piece and remember that he is, despite what he often moans, Eeyore style, still a very lucky boy to be where he is. It’s a fact likely not lost on his parents, who mortgaged themselves to the hilt to give their son his chance.

Now, they can only hope the difficulties he’s had as of late doesn’t leave him in position to squander it.

A couple points to finish up:

TNT: A Gopher-Free Zone
How good was TNT’s coverage from Pocono last Sunday? Wow! It was a blessed relief after all the maniacal promotions and stupid furry animals to see a broadcaster concentrate on showing some actual racing rather than hocking t-shirts and other assorted merchandise. That said, anything was probably going to appear better after the shenanigans we saw from the NASCAR on FOX crew in the first 13 races… but despite the bar being set pretty low, it was still a great start to TNT’s six-race slate.

What a Difference a Year Makes
OK, it was fuel-mileage assisted, but Sam Hornish Jr.’s 10th-place run, his third this season and third overall in 50 Sprint Cup attempts, represented a considerable improvement from this time last year at the 2.5-mile triangle track in Long Pond, Pa. In 2008, Hornish was a 3,400-pound piñata, wrecking at almost every turn before his day came to a merciful end with 70 laps still to run. Sure, he has a long way to go to really prove himself, but baby steps are important – and with each passing week, Hornish, Jr.’s steady improvement can only pay dividends.

Go R-Fed
Forgive me for finishing up with tennis, but I wanted to briefly mention Roger Federer, who tied Pete Sampras’s all-time record of 14 Grand Slam wins with his victory Sunday in the French Open. In professional sport, there are tons of pretenders and contenders, but very few masters. However, the unassuming Federer, like Jimmie J and his bizarre facial hair, is just that – an undisputed master.

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