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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: Denny Hamlin to Dethrone Jimmie Johnson? Don’t Bet the Farm Just Yet

Everyone I’ve talked to that has had a torn ACL has described to me in graphic terms how brutal the pain is. Phrases like “I went down like a sack of potatoes” — whatever that means — are fairly common. Anyway, the point’s been taken that a torn ACL hurts, badly. And people who have been there know that what Denny Hamlin has accomplished on that bad leg thus far this year is fairly incredible.

Hamlin and the No. 11 team have been gangbusters, blowing off a torn ligament on the way to four dramatic wins in the first 14 races this season.

NASCAR’s fans and commentators are eager to predict who will be the dragon slayer that finally takes down the mighty No. 48 team. For some reason, even though Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have both been in contention and are driving the same top-notch equipment, the man that gets put in the enviable position of potential savior of NASCAR is Hamlin. Unlike his teammate Kyle Busch, who tore up the field in the first 26 races in 2008 only to collapse in the Chase, Hamlin is seen as more even-keeled, a driver with the right temperament to keep it together under pressure.

It’s easy to see why Hamlin tops the list of potential heirs to the Cup throne. He’s been a consistent performer at the top level since he first replaced Jason Leffler in the No. 11. Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in nearly half of his career Cup races and finished in the top five in nearly a third of them. Those kinds of numbers will put a driver in a championship hunt. Hamlin won two of the last five races in 2009, and without two blown engines in the Chase, he might have been dueling Johnson for the title at Homestead.

On top of that, right now the No. 48 team doesn’t look like a champion. They’ve been caught up in some bad luck, made some uncharacteristic mistakes, and most of all are barely squeezing out top 10s with subpar equipment.

Meanwhile, Hamlin is off to the best start of his Cup career. So were we racing in an era where the first 26 races actually mattered, I might be more willing to put my cash on Hamlin being the driver destined to knock down Jimmie Johnson. Unfortunately, we live in a world where parity and gimmicks are rewarded over excellence. Hamlin may be looking like a serious threat now, but once the checkered flag falls at Richmond, none of it matters. The driver of the FedEx Toyota has himself acknowledged that a driver cannot afford much bad luck in 10 races.

Hamlin and Company put on an impressive clinic at Pocono this weekend, and came from well behind to take a thrilling win at Martinsville earlier this year. Without doubt, Hamlin can race those two tracks like few drivers can. But while he isn’t a one-trick pony, those two venues are by far Hamlin’s biggest strengths, being home to more than half of his 12 Cup wins thus far. At other tracks he is unquestionably very good, but if a driver is going to topple Johnson, he’s going to have to be better than very good in the last 10.

Hamlin has not been spectacular at Chase venues. In 95 starts at the 10 playoff tracks (including non-Chase races), he has six wins, 30 top fives and 47 top 10s. Take away Martinsville, and the numbers become three wins, 23 top fives and 39 top 10s in 85 starts. Good, but not championship-level performance. And as great as Hamlin is at Martinsville, another driver has had enough success at the paperclip to effectively negate his advantage: Johnson.

Johnson isn’t just tough in Virginia. Johnson’s numbers at Chase venues are: 163 starts, 34 wins, 77 top fives and 114 top 10s. The No. 48 team is very, very tough not only at Martinsville, but also at Charlotte, Dover and Fontana. They’re no slouches at Atlanta or Phoenix either.

Johnson’s erratic regular season performance thus far isn’t anything new either. It’s not that he’s ever struggled to make the playoffs by the skin of his teeth, but 2010 is hardly the first year that the team has looked vulnerable in the first half. After 14 races in 2007, Johnson was over 300 points behind Gordon. After the first Charlotte race in 2008, Johnson had already had four finishes or 27th or worse. 10 races into the 2009 season, he had already finished 30th or worse three times. In fact, the No. 48 team stumbles in the first half more often than not, which made their three wins in the first six races this season even scarier until the team returned to their usual possum-playing ways.

It makes one wonder why fans would watch regular-season races. We just saw the Flyers fall to the Blackhawks in the Finals (sniff) after nearly two months of playoffs. I have to admit I watched maybe four Flyers games over the regular season, because I didn’t think my team was going to be good enough for a serious Stanley Cup run. The Flyers made a Herculean effort when it counted, but if 16 NHL teams make the playoffs and your team doesn’t, they’re not going to be good enough to hold your interest. It works the other way too… ask any Washington Capitals fan. Nothing stings like a world-beating regular season followed by an early exit in the playoffs.

Hamlin and the No. 11 team may look unstoppable now, but as the No. 48 team has proven four times, all that matters is the last 10. And the numbers say that Jimmie and Chad and Crew are pretty good in those ten.

I’m not saying Hamlin can’t do it. He’s probably as able as anyone to give Johnson a run for the title. But I’m not sold yet. The No.11 team will need to up their game at Chase tracks first.

And until they do, this commentator’s money is still on Jeff Gordon.

Kurt’s Shorts

  • She may not be popular with the Logano family, but DeLana Harvick is a pretty shrewd businesswoman, now selling t-shirts that say “I wear the firesuit in this family.” You know, I never thought about it until Joey brought it up, but a NASCAR wife wearing a firesuit on the pit box is a little weird. But hey, who am I to question? And good for Mrs. Harvick for having a sense of humor about it.
  • Well it’s fairly obvious now why Kasey Kahne would want to leave Richard Petty Motorsports. Not because AJ Allmendinger cut him off and caused him to wreck, but the fact that Kasey said they never talk to each other in the first place. That’s pretty tough to do when you both share a team shop. Talk about an organization in disarray. Not long ago Evernham Motorsports was a real force in the sport. It’s all Jeremy Mayfield’s fault.
  • I fall for it every time. NASCAR announced once again that they will increase the size of the holes in the restrictor plate. Whenever this is done I think that cars will actually be able to pass without someone ramming into them at 195 mph.
  • NASCAR’s decline may have finally hit rock bottom. I never thought I’d ever see Rick Hendrick shopping at Wal-Mart.

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