This weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, should Denny Hamlin and crew manage to outduel Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and their crews, Hamlin would be the driver that finally came along and knocked Jimmie Johnson off his lofty perch.
Should the 11 car take the Sprint Cup, it would be a fourth title for Joe Gibbs Racing, and JGR would achieve something only Hendrick Motorsports has managed since the rise to prominence of multi-car outfits—championships with three different car numbers. Gibbs won two titles with Tony Stewart in the No. 20 and a title with Bobby Labonte in the No. 18.
In just six seasons since going full-time in 2005, the No. 11 has notched 16 wins, 61 top fives and 98 top tens. Since Hamlin took over driving duties, the 11 has made the playoffs every season. This year Hamlin has a whopping eight victories and it has been the best season yet for a steadily improving team.
One forgotten name in the success story is Jason Leffler. In 2005, Leffler was a promising young prodigy tapped to drive the new third car for Gibbs. He had certainly done well enough to earn the ride while driving the No. 20 in the then-Busch Series. In 27 starts, he had notched a win and eight top fives. And even back in 2004, Busch Series regulars had to battle plenty of Cup stars.
That year Denny Hamlin started in exactly one race for Joe Gibbs in the Nationwide Series, and was at the time running Late Model stock cars. That race was a fantastic first impression…he finished eighth at no less a track than Darlington.
Still, given Leffler’s Busch Series performance, it would be difficult to question Gibbs tapping Leffler as the driver for his new Cup team. Sure, Leffler had not performed up to expectations with Chip Ganassi Racing, managing just one top ten in 30 starts. But he had done reasonably well in Busch rides he had been given since then, and no one in racing doubts that sometimes drivers get into the wrong situation with a team.
The No. 11 had a big send off in 2005. FedEx no longer stood by and watched while UPS and Dale Jarrett ran their enormously successful “Race The Truck” campaign, launching their “Every Day Is Race Day” ads, many of which were pretty funny in their own right. (One featured a man getting in his car and doing donuts in a cul-de-sac after beating his family at a card game.) Joe Gibbs now had three cars and was going to compete better with teams that could share more information. The young driver that Tony Stewart once called “mini-me” was going to get another shot after a quality year in the Busch Series. (This writer added him to his fantasy team, thinking he was an inexpensive risk.)
Things unfortunately didn’t work out so well for Leffler in 2005. In 19 starts he finished in the top 15 just once in Martinsville. In many races he was caught up in crashes, some of his own making, some not, that relegated him to enough finishes in the high 30s that the No. 11 team fell out of the top 35 and failed to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.
Leffler was replaced with several interim drivers, including Terry Labonte and J.J. Yeley, before Denny Hamlin took over for the last seven races. With Hamlin in the car the No. 11 finally seemed to come to life, scoring three top ten finishes.
After two unremarkable stints in Cup racing, Jason Leffler is now a Nationwide regular, once again putting up decent numbers driving for Braun Racing. Had he never raced in Cup before, Leffler might still be a prospect today, rather than what my colleague Bryan Davis Keith refers to as a “good _Nationwide_ driver”.
Chemistry is a strange thing in motorsports. Is Denny Hamlin really _that_ much better a driver than Jason Leffler? Probably not; but one would have to assume just from sheer numbers that Denny is much better. After all, they drive the same car for the same racing team.
What should be remembered, though, is that 2005 was a significant year of rule changes in NASCAR. The regulation spoiler height was lowered in an effort to create more side-by-side racing. At the same time, NASCAR declared that most races would be “impound” races, where no practices would take place after qualifying and cars would be required to start the race with their qualifying setup.
Teams not only had a new car design to adjust to, they had fewer practices to do it. Some teams, like the 48 bunch, were able to adapt, while the No. 24 had all sorts of difficulty with intermediate tracks in the only season where Jeff Gordon failed to make the Chase since its inception in 2004.
Then there were teams like the No. 20 clan with Tony Stewart at the wheel. Stewart struggled for much of the first half of 2005, especially at aero-dependent tracks; he finished 17th at Fontana and Atlanta, 24th at Charlotte and 29th at Pocono. But after Pocono the No. 20 team hit on something and got white hot. A second place finish at Michigan was followed by five wins in seven races, and Stewart would go on to become the Cup champion.
No one is offering conclusive proof here, but chances are that Gibbs’ apparent unlocking of the new spoiler setup helped Denny Hamlin nail down three top ten finishes late in the season. Had they discovered it sooner, Leffler’s runs might have improved enough to keep him in the ride.
Luck of the draw, perhaps. Had Leffler stayed in the No. 11, would he be battling Jimmie Johnson for a Cup title? Highly unlikely, given that even with Gibbs’ troubles at the time he was still underperforming. Still, things could have been very different. Hamlin may have run in a fourth Gibbs car or for another team that wasn’t as good as a whole.
As things worked out, a driver and a team are now on the verge of dethroning a four time champion, and putting yet another trophy on Joe Gibbs’s mantle.