NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: Don’t Rule Out Hamlin Just Yet – Preseason Fave Set for a Rebound

Sometimes, being selected the trendy preseason pick turns out to be nothing more than a case of bad punditry, as the erstwhile favorite struggles to live up to the hype. And in the case of Denny Hamlin, the first three weeks of the new NASCAR season has been just that – an early failure to live up to expectations.

Shuffled out of the lead draft, some say for his aggressive, “no prisoners” approach throughout Speedweeks, Hamlin finished 17th in the Daytona 500 and promptly told his followers not to worry – the real season starts at Fontana. But a 29th-place finish the following weekend suggested otherwise, and a 19th-place run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday – when he struggled with an ill-handling, loose racecar all day – just reinforced what has been a subpar start for the Joe Gibbs racer, now entering his fifth full season at the Sprint Cup level.

So, is it all over for Denny? Is he already destined to struggle through a frustrating, winless year in 2010, like 2009 preseason pick Carl Edwards did last year?

No, and far from it, quite frankly.

Let’s take a look at the evidence. The good news for Hamlin is that he’s headed into a portion of the schedule during which he tends to excel. Given the contents of his succinct, but accurate tweet, that can only be a good thing for the struggling FedEx Toyota wheelman. In fact, a glimpse at Hamlin’s recent record at the next five tracks suggests that March and April’s races will provide a timely boost for him. He finished 13th and sixth at Atlanta, second and fifth at Thunder Valley, second and first (in the Chase) at Martinsville, sixth and third at Phoenix and 12th and second (also in the Chase) at Texas Motor Speedway. And whilst it’s still early, Hamlin does need a duplication – or, at the very least an approximation of – these sort of finishes in the upcoming weeks.

It’s not just the schedule that works in Hamlin’s favor, either. Atop the pit box, head wrench Mike Ford is a vastly experienced, calming presence over both driver and team, not to mention a shrewd race strategist. Consider, for example, the July 2007 race at Loudon where Ford gambled on two tires, rather than four, in the final stop of the race. It’s a decision that led to Hamlin’s third victory (of eight total) where Ford’s knowledge of track position paid off. With over 15 years of experience that included spells as crew chief for Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott, Ford has the knowledge and the know-how to steady the ship, and you can be sure that he’ll be doing everything within his considerable power to do so going forward.

Another mitigating factor to Denny’s slow start is the early season form of 19-year old phenom and JGR teammate Joey Logano. After a 20th-place run in the Great American Race, Sliced Bread has finished fifth and sixth in the past couple of weeks. In doing so, Logano has looked pretty damn racy. Some of this is simple confidence, as he finds his feet at the Cup level in spite of the ballyhoo and hype that has surrounded him almost his entire career. Like Hamlin, Logano is helped significantly by the presence of an experienced crew chief in the form of Greg Zipadelli. But it’s not just Zippy that has Logano’s cars… well, zipping along nicely. It’s the driver as well. The long and short of it is that a JGR car is running well on the all-important intermediate circuits. So for Hamlin, at least, his slow start is not a wider symptom of organizational malaise.

Don’t forget, also, that in the last two years Denny has suffered through slow starts, warming up with the weather and across the summer. Last season, for example, all four victories came in the last 16 races, including the final race of the season at Homestead. So, there’s no need for panic in the Hamlin camp just yet. With 154 Sprint Cup races of experience under his belt, eight wins, 47 top fives, 79 top 10s and 3,502 laps led, Hamlin can relax a little and have the confidence that he can get his season back on track as quickly as his 2010 version derailed in the first couple weeks. Plus, let’s not forget Kyle has struggled this season as well, with finishes of 14th, 14th and 15th, respectively. In short, it’s not just Denny.

One other point worth mentioning is Hamlin’s torn ACL, which he suffered in a pick-up basketball game on the eve of the new season. Now, as someone who tore the exact same ligament in the left knee, the decision to postpone surgery until the conclusion of the season seems logical. It takes a couple months post-surgery for the knee to return to normal size, and several more months to return to full mobility. That said, the lack of stability in his injured knee will, I believe, be a factor. In the month between my injury and my actual surgery, I’d find my knee would give way slightly for no particular reason at various times during the day. Rehab can help, and you can be sure Hamlin is doing whatever is necessary in that regard, but the fact that he will need offseason surgery just underlines the thorny nature of the problem. I’ve read all the quotes from the medical professionals that it will not affect his driving… but I just don’t believe it.

So whilst it’s not been the excellent, momentum-generating start Hamlin and the team wanted, the whispers that Hamlin is in trouble are, at this stage, still a little off-base. I’m sticking with my preseason prediction (recorded in an article here on this fine site) that he makes the Chase… comfortably. How he does after that, it’s hard to predict. But getting there is the first part of the battle, and you’d expect him to start by maximizing speed at the super-fast high banks of Atlanta Motor Speedway. In his words: “We need to regroup this week and focus on getting to the front in Atlanta. We belong up front and we need to be there in Atlanta.”

The belief is there. The performance and the results, I suspect, are just around the corner.

One final thought: How stunningly cool was that 2011 Shelby GT350 Pace Car with its Shelby Guardsman blue Le Mans stripes? Even money says that sleek, lovingly-crafted supercharged 5.0-liter V8 monster would have trounced the field, yeah even Vanilla Jimmie, had they let it run some laps in anger. I felt more than a little sad each time the beautiful vehicle pulled away from the front of the pack onto pit road before the drop of the green….

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