NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 NASCAR Driver Review: Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin

2010 Ride: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2010 Primary Sponsor: FedEx
2010 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2010 Crew Chief: Mike Ford
2010 Stats: 36 starts, 8 wins, 14 top fives, 18 top 10s, 2 poles, second in points

High Points: Right down until the final race of the season, Hamlin was a strong competitor for this year’s Cup title. Winning eight races, more than any other driver, and in fact more than all four Hendrick teams combined isn’t too shabby. The amazing part is when Hamlin elected to get his knee operated on during the season, fixing a torn ACL rather than waiting until after Homestead.

He and the team basically agreed they were going to throw away the 2010 season to start working on 2011 and beyond, when Hamlin would be healed; instead, they nearly turned his convalescence into a championship. How good a year did Hamlin have in 2010? He’s won a total of 16 Cup races in his career, eight of them this year.

Low Points: If you’re from the Northeast and not one of the more culturally impoverished areas of the country, you probably remember a line from a Springsteen song that goes, “Well, they came so far, and they waited so long, just to hit the part of the dream, where everything goes wrong….”

Hamlin looked to have Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson on the ropes at Phoenix in the penultimate race of the season. He dominated the race with seeming ease, leading 190 of 312 laps. Traditionally at Phoenix (or anywhere that the scoundrels who rule NASCAR officiate races) there will be a debris caution late to bunch the field back up, send everyone off to the pits for tires and gas while concluding the race in what is hoped will be memorable fashion.

Only at Phoenix, that caution never flew and Hamlin’s team told him he’d need to pit for a splash of gas to make the finish. It’s ironic that Hamlin himself had called NASCAR out on those bogus late-race cautions, an airing of attitude that cost him $50,000.

He did leave Phoenix with the points lead, albeit a narrow one, to fight one more afternoon at Homestead, but the damage had been done. A 37th-place starting position was the first strike against Hamlin, who was clearly apprehensive race morning while rivals Johnson and Harvick remained relaxed. Trying to work his way forward early in the race, Hamlin blundered into the side of Greg Biffle’s Ford, a clearly avoidable incident that caused a spinout and from there, it just all unraveled.

The car was damaged, not badly enough it couldn’t run but badly enough it couldn’t compete. Rather than biting the bullet and effecting repairs, even if it cost them a lap, the No. 11 bunch kept trying to Band-Aid a solution that never stopped the bleeding. Meanwhile, the No. 48 car was on cruise control, running in the top five throughout to win a battle they never really expended energy for.

In the end, a 14th-place finish at Homestead cost Hamlin a title, the first points leader entering the season finale to lose one under the Chase format. Eventually, I’m sure they’ll learn to sleep at night with the price they paid, but I doubt it will be anytime soon.

Summary: Hamlin came into his own this year as a Cup driver. He’s in a rock solid position with his car owner Joe Gibbs and sponsor FedEx. They say you have to lose a close championship bout to win one, and the No. 11 team surely has tossed one away now. For most drivers, the sort of success Hamlin enjoyed would be a dream season, but to enter the last race of the year leading the points only to tear it down and throw it away… ouch.

2011 Outlook: Joe Gibbs Racing has shown they can compete mano on mano with Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush. Hamlin has proved he can win races just about anywhere, and his newfound maturity held up splendidly until those final two races. Having had a whiff of the grand prize, Toyota is unlikely to be shy about spending yen to support the No. 11 bunch next year. All you can do when you miss a cherished goal by so little is regroup and sigh, “Maybe next year.” Only sometimes, next year never comes. Just ask Carl Edwards.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: B-
2008 Grade: B
2009 Grade: A-
2010 Grade: A

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