New points. New pavement. New attitude. As NASCAR heads towards Daytona in 2011, all around the sport are focused on the positive, looking for the perfect season to recapture a nation and get what once seemed like limitless upward momentum jumpstarted again.
Can they do it? As Speedweeks dawn, both the Bud Shootout and 53rd Daytona 500 usher in a long list of questions along with them, the answers to which could define the sport for not just this year but the coming decade. That means it’s time to get the blood pumping and start that 2011 analysis, figuring out just exactly how the controversies, the Earnhardt drama, and the NASCAR tweaks both on and off the track will work out. This week, we’ll get you thinking each day on one of five big questions facing stock car racing in 2011; as we try and find the answers, ten staff members you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all … a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November …
Today’s Season Preview Topic: The last three seasons, the closest challenger to Jimmie Johnson has experienced a hangover the following year: Jeff Gordon (2007), Carl Edwards (2008), and Mark Martin (2009) all suffered through winless seasons while Martin actually missed the Chase. Should we expect any different from Denny Hamlin this year? Why or why not, and how do you expect his 2011 to play out?
Tom Bowles, Managing Editor: As I mentioned in my Did You Notice? column today, the stats certainly don’t seem to be on Denny’s side now, do they? Sometimes, it’s a matter of history repeating itself, and after coming so close with the emotional high of exceeding expectations post-ACL surgery, that adrenaline’s only going to last for so long if he faces early struggles.
One thing to observe moving forward is the on and off-track relationship between Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford. Hamlin seemed to blame Ford for the majority of missteps last November, including a poor call on refueling the car that led to Jimmie Johnson finishing ahead of a dominant No. 11 team at Phoenix and stealing what turned out to be championship momentum. Without a solid off-track friendship to build on, early struggles could leave the two heading towards divorce in the same way Kyle Busch and Steve Addington fell apart at Joe Gibbs Racing in ’09. Five years is an eternity for driver/crew chiefs to stay together, which means the end of this marriage would mean an almost certain rebuilding process that won’t have Hamlin thinking championship – he’ll just be happy to make the Chase.
Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I don’t think the so-called “hangover” will be Hamlin’s problem. He should easily make the Chase, but after two years in a row of melting down at a critical point of a Chase he could have won, my concern is that Hamlin simply doesn’t have the chops for the pressure that the Chase foists on drivers.
Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor: I think the thing about Denny Hamlin is he has never been quite able to put together that entire season and unfortunately for him, the part that unraveled last year was the vital part at the end. I don’t expect him to go winless, but I don’t see him getting that bout of inconsistency behind him yet either.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Senior Editor: Denny Hamlin had a chance to dethrone Jimmie Johnson last season, and then, he had a meltdown. But let’s not let the ending taint how strong his Chase was overall; while everyone counted Hamlin out after knee surgery, the Virginian came on strong and proved the No. 11 team belonged right in the thick of the championship battle after all. With three months for the pain to fade, Hamlin has to believe his overall performance throughout the ten-race playoff showed he definitely is a championship-caliber driver. And because of his near-miss, the driver of the No. 11 will be out to prove himself again this season. While the media might get to him a little, Hamlin’s best move will be to tune it all out and just race. He has the equipment underneath him to support another run for the big trophy, and I don’t expect anything less out of the 30-year-old driver just entering his prime.
Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: These kinds of questions drive me nuts! How the hell do I know how Hamlin’s season will play out!? I don’t give it any thought. Maybe he will develop hemorrhoids or some other affliction. Maybe his crew chief is getting a divorce. Maybe the impact of his zodiac sign being changed will have him more interested in writing poetry or something. Saying he will do good or bad is nothing more than a drunken blind monkey throwing a dart at a dart board (not recommended by the way, trust me!). Just have to wait and see. Okay, okay….if I have to choose, personally I think he’s gonna try soooo hard to make up for his major choke in 2010 that he won’t even make the Chase in ’11, or if he does, it will only be because of Brian’s new “win one and you’re in” clause.
Mike Neff, Senior Writer: It will not surprise me at all to see Hamlin go through a slump this year. He’s always had some difficulty dealing with adverse results throughout his career, plus the failure at the end of the Chase is going to be hard for him to overcome. Add in the fact that Joey Logano seems to be ready to contend for a title, plus Kyle Busch is maturing and you have a situation where Hamlin could be overshadowed within his own organization. How he deals with that position will determine his success or failure in 2011.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: Denny Hamlin will continue to be a factor in the Chase and a force to be reckoned with throughout the season. He shouldn’t need any surgeries this year; Joe Gibbs Racing is the most stable organization in the sport, and he has learned not only how to win, but to race for a title – so he’ll be just fine. Some good stories should emerge along with that: the return of Brian Vickers following heart surgery, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Steve Letarte joining forces, Mark Martin’s final year with Hendrick Motorsports (cough, cough…), and Kasey Kahne’s one-off ride with Red Bull will all contribute reams of storytelling opportunities for journalists everywhere. That being said, I think Vickers will pick up where he left off, though not necessarily challenge for a championship – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Earnhardt and Letarte will probably look a lot like Earnhardt and McGrew, while Martin and McGrew will combine to win and make the Chase, which will do wonders for Dale Jr.’s psyche.
The big story I believe that will develop will be with Red Bull Racing. I foresee Kasey Kahne doing big things with them and early on in the season. Red Bull will throw huge money at Kahne to keep him in the program, and Kahne only needs to look at the trials and tribulations of Dale Jr. to help make his case for staying put. What other driver fits the image of their marketing program better than Kahne? That means Martin will return to help Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, much as he did in 2006 for Jack Roush when a driver change that was initiated a year earlier fell apart. Twice.
Summer Dreyer, Frontstretch Contributor: I’m not as quick to throw Denny Hamlin completely out of the championship picture because the last three years he has only continued to improve. After finishing third in points and winning two races in his rookie season, Hamlin finished 12th in points the next year after winning only one race – the prototypical “sophomore slump.” Since then, though, he has finished 8th, 5th, and 2nd in points, and has increased the numbers in his win column every season. While following up a season as successful as 2010 will be difficult, if Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford can come back with the same approach they used last year for most of the season, they can make another strong run at it. I’m expecting no less than a top-5 finish in points for the No. 11 in 2011.
Phil Allaway, Senior Editor: I hope Denny doesn’t have a slump. We need somebody to challenge Jimmie Johnson. Having said that, if there is a communication breakdown between Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, then there could be problems. I think he’ll drop off a little from last year, but he’ll still be in the Chase with a couple of wins.
S.D. Grady, Senior Editor: Same song, different verse, little bit louder, little bit worse… Hamlin must master the meltdown in order to avoid a repetition of those that came before him. That … and Johnson’s leprechaun needs to be abducted.
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