Monday at Martinsville put Denny Hamlin square in the spotlight. It was a do-or-die weekend at a home-state track, a race many saw as his only chance to save a season that saw him slumping to 19th in points and posing no remote threat for the Sprint Cup title in 2010.
His back against the wall, Hamlin delivered. Staging a furious comeback from 29th to the front after his car dropped off the jack during pit stops in the first 100 laps, he saved his most convincing run for last. Charging from ninth to first in the final five green-flag laps of Monday’s rain-delayed event, Hamlin rebounded from a faulty pit call to score his most convincing Cup victory since holding off Jeff Gordon to win at Loudon back in 2007.
Powerful. Daring. Breathtaking. It was exactly the performance that Hamlin and the No. 11 team needed to remind everyone in the NASCAR community why they were considered the leading contender to knock Jimmie Johnson from the throne of stock car racing.
But even after scoring the win in one of the most memorable races in recent history, Hamlin’s chances at a Sprint Cup title in 2010 had the proverbial nail put in their coffin two days earlier. Saturday’s announcement that he’ll have surgery today to replace his torn ACL – contradicting an initial plan to fix the injury after the season – was an earthquake felt throughout his No. 11 Toyota team that has yet to completely settle down.
Not so fast, Hamlin fans will say. The surgeon who will be repairing his knee has publicly stated he’ll be able to drive in time for the Cup Series’ next race at Phoenix. Even if he can’t go a full 600 kilometers, Joe Gibbs Racing has tabbed Casey Mears, the “best option to get a good finish” of all the drivers currently available, to be on standby duty for Hamlin next Saturday night and beyond. Keeping the No. 11 car around the top 12 in points long enough for Hamlin to get back to full steam is completely possible; and if he’s in the Chase, it’s game on.
Dream on. Denny’s pursuit of the 2010 Cup title ended the second he announced plans to have surgery. And frankly, they may well have been done long before that.
First, there’s Hamlin’s recovery forecast, made in a matter more optimistic than the Obama administration’s forecast of stimulus job creation. The 29-year-old is being projected to climb into his race car at Phoenix for qualifying Friday, less than 10 days after a surgery that usually keeps people from driving for a month. And while qualifying may be doable – given that it’s only two laps – over 350 circuits on race day is something else altogether.
There’s no doubt about it, Hamlin will have to exit the car before the end of 600 kilometers at Phoenix, and likely will have to exit races early for the next several events. Several doctors who have spoken to Frontstretch, while acknowledging that they can only speculate – given their lack of familiarity with Hamlin’s case – have unanimously said this type of surgery means it will be at least a month before Hamlin can go the distance again.
So trust me, Mears had reason to be thrilled when he spoke to Frontstretch about being tabbed as the standby driver for the No. 11… the seat time will be there.
Yet while that may make Mears happy, the situation is not one that should be exciting, or even deluding, JGR and the No. 11 team into thinking they’ll be able to perform at a level high enough to keep them within striking distance of the Chase. JGR knows all too well that the whole relief driver plan doesn’t work out like it’s drawn out on paper: see Tony Stewart’s 2006 campaign, interrupted by a shoulder injury at Charlotte and requiring relief driver services at Dover the following week. The team finished a disappointing 25th on that Sunday, the start of a disastrous stretch that saw the team crack the top 20 only once in five races – a slump that was ultimately the difference in making and missing the Chase.
Keep in mind also that Stewart’s “super sub” during that tenure was Ricky Rudd, a longtime veteran of the sport that has over 20 Sprint Cup victories to his credit. Mears has nowhere near that resume to draw upon, and his record at the upcoming tracks on the Cup schedule – where he will be counted on to race the majority of the laps in the No. 11 car – are not that encouraging. Since the fall of 2008, Mears has an average finish of 21.6 at Phoenix, Texas and Talladega, with no top-10 finishes to show for it.
That’s not even taking into account how teams utilizing relief drivers often see their performance naturally drop. Rudd’s 25th-place run driving for Stewart in 2006 was the worst for the No. 20 team at Dover since 1999. Martin Truex Jr. and John Andretti averaged only a 28th-place finish in their two races relieving Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2004, 16 spots worse than the No. 8 team averaged during that campaign. So as much as the cars may play a role in racing today, it’s not as simple as plugging another driver into a good car. Add in the fact JGR is banking on a driver that washed out of the Ganassi, Hendrick and Childress camps… and the chances for success simply aren’t high.
All of this analysis also assumes that Hamlin’s knee is the only reason for his current struggles. But there’s much more to this problem than meets the eye. While Kyle Busch and Joey Logano both have long-term deals lined up, Hamlin’s current contract at the Gibbs camp is set to expire at the end of the 2010 season. Is it possible that, after a hugely disappointing start, Hamlin is ready to throw in the towel and wait for 2011… and a new team? With Logano proving to be every bit the wunderkind he was hyped to be and Busch still commanding a presence even if he’s not back to winning races, the chance for Hamlin to be the top dog in the Gibbs camp is far from certain. And considering that Richard Childress’s flagship No. 29 ride is likely to be open following the season (not to mention that the organization is on an upswing), the question has to be asked: with 2010 proving to be a dud, is Hamlin already looking to 2011 somewhere else?
Or is this simply a way out of a season that, for all the hype, seems to have been mishandled from the start? As well as Hamlin ran at the end of last year, and as much as he legitimately seemed poised to give Johnson all he could handle, there were definitely warning signs that not everything was lined up for a title run. There was the constant bickering with Brad Keselowski, a Nationwide Series driver, causing the “savior complex” Hamlin exemplified in describing his actions in the NNS season finale at Homestead. He made a point not to call attention to his actions following a retaliatory spin of Keselowski, but instead to how they somehow brought scores of unhappy team members and drivers to their feet on pit road – as if he had rid racing of some awful scourge.
Then, there was the late season rumbling about how Hamlin had grown discontent with the level of respect he was receiving from NASCAR and those in the garage, at one point even stating that “it’s just frustrating that [Jeff Gordon has] that much pull with NASCAR. We’ve all driven this Car of Tomorrow the same number of years. We all came in this together. I just wish everyone could have equal say-so….”
Finally, there was the decision in the first place to delay surgery until after the conclusion of the 2010 season, even though, according to the timetables being put forward now for Hamlin, he could have had it done and been ready to at least start the races at Daytona Speedweeks. Who knows how much the pain was affecting him in the interim, as he went 0-for-5 on top 10 finishes this season until his drive to victory at Martinsville on Monday.
So, let’s summarize. We’ve got a man who was distracted, even focusing on a spat with a competitor in a lower-level series to end last season. From that controversy emerged an attitude of being entitled to something instead of earning or taking it. That tells me even before the ACL tear, it was abundantly clear that there were cracks in this driver’s armor heading into the 2010 season… and cracked armor isn’t going to take down Johnson.
Now for all that we know, the decision to have knee surgery now is just as simple as Hamlin’s press conference at Martinsville would have us all believe; after all, he claims doctors warned of permanent damage to his knee without a fix. But there are plenty of unanswered questions swirling around the No. 11 team that need to be posed. Because once he goes under the blade this Wednesday, so also goes what was almost unanimously considered to be the greatest threat to Johnson’s pending five-peat.
Because no matter how optimistic the forecast for Hamlin’s recovery time, the 2010 season ended on Monday for the No. 11 team. Hamlin earned himself a beautiful grandfather clock for one of the most impressive short-track performances of the last decade. But come this winter, there will still be a glaring hole on his mantle where a Sprint Cup trophy was supposed to go.