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2009 Season Review: Denny Hamlin

2009 Ride: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2009 Primary Sponsor: FedEx
2009 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2009 Crew Chief: Mike Ford

Stats: 36 starts, 4 wins, 15 top fives, 20 top 10s, 1 pole, 5th in points
Best Finish: 1st, four times (Pocono – August, Richmond – September, Martinsville – October, Homestead)
Average Finish: 13.2

High Point: No question, the high point in 2009 for Denny Hamlin was his emotional hometown victory at Richmond International Raceway in the final race before the Chase began. He had come so close on several previous occasions at RIR, but this time he finally closed the deal after all 400 laps much to his – and his fans’ – delight. It’s highly unlikely any driver has ever attempted a longer, post checkers burnout and the celebrations, by all accounts, went long, late, and loud.

Low Point(s): The DNF at Fontana, when Hamlin inexplicably cut in front of Juan Pablo Montoya leading on a restart, massively impacted his Chase chances. But the nail in the coffin was the engine expiry at Lowe’s Motor Speedway the following week – and all after having led 54 laps – giving him perhaps his worst six day stretch as a Sprint Cup driver to date.

Summary: After a ho-hum start to the year, Hamlin kickstarted his season with a pair of second-place runs at Bristol and Martinsville, where he led 296 laps before being Jimmie Johnson’ed right at the end of the race. The other low point of the year (outside the Chase DNFs – more later) came when he finished 36th at Dover – a track at which Hamlin tends to suck – and then 38th the following week at Pocono when he couldn’t even get his car up to speed to take the green flag. At that stage, with 14 races in the books, Hamlin had sunk to just a point ahead of 13th but crucially, he was still inside the all-important Chase transfer spots.

Four top fives in the next five races restored some much needed luster and after a 34th-place effort at the Brickyard, Hamlin suddenly had a triumphant return to Pocono, dominating on the day and winning his third race (of seven career victories) at the 2.5-mile tricky triangle. Exiting the car in victory lane, Hamlin was hugely emotional following the very recent death of his beloved Grandmother, and although no one is ever owed a victory, Hamlin certainly drove it like he stole it that afternoon and simply refused to lose.

Consecutive 10th-place runs at Michigan and Watkins Glen followed to virtually lock up Hamlin’s playoff bid; he then captured momentum in the final three races before the Chase by finishing sixth at Thunder Valley, then fifth at Atlanta before the morale-boosting win at Richmond. Headed into the Chase in the fourth transfer spot, Hamlin’s confidence was sky high and a second-place run in race number one did little to dissuade the Chesterfield, Va. native that 2009 might just be his year. After another disappointing Dover finish (22nd) Hamlin bounced back with a fifth-place run at Kansas to stay in contention – before a nightmare week and double disaster at Fontana and Charlotte.

But Hamlin dug deep the very next weekend to record a win at Martinsville, leading over 200 laps on his way to picking up his second win at the .526-mile paperclip. A second engine failure in three races at Talladega – a track at which he’s always run well without ever getting the finish – continued his feast or famine Chase theme. One interesting point to note: In his three previous full seasons (2006, 2007 and 2008) he’s had exactly two DNFs because of engine failure.

A second place at Texas, in a bizarre race, came next before he rounded out his season with a third-place run at Phoenix and the morale boosting win in the final race of the year.

Overall, though, 2009 will go down as a missed opportunity for Denny. The reality is no one really had anything for Jimmie when it counted, but Denny came into the Chase knowing he could have made a sustained challenge for the championship. It wasn’t to be, though, for Joe Gibbs Racing’s senior driver, coming up just short for the fourth straight year in four consecutive playoff appearances. Yet all is not lost, as both he and his team have plenty to build on for next year with a strong head wrench, fantastic equipment, a rock solid sponsor, and plenty more experience.

Team Ranking: 1st of 3. Hamlin was the only JGR driver to qualify for the Chase, despite so many pre-and early season plaudits going to his irascible teammate Kyle Busch.

Off-Track News: Hamlin instigated a program called Denny’s Seats, which involved him giving away seats to each and every Cup race this year. All fans had to do was write in and say why they should be chosen. It’s a small example of “giving back” that each driver on the Cup circuit would do well to imitate.

2010 Outlook: After four straight years qualifying for the Chase and essentially flaming out, the time has come for Hamlin to make a sustained charge for the championship. Expect him to do just that in 2010, and now that he’s mastered the knack of winning races, don’t be surprised to see him pick up multiple victories along the way.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: B-
2008 Grade: B.
2009 Grade: A-

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