Prior to the final race of the 2010 season Denny Hamlin was a voracious tweeter on a wide variety of topics and issues. Since that fateful day, the six-year veteran has been unusually reticent, tweeting infrequently, if at all over the off season and early stages of the 2011 calendar.
Headed into race day at Thunder Valley he tweeted: “Feel pretty good about our chances today. We will see”. Then came a wreck – not of his making – and a 12-lap down, 33rd place finish. That same evening Hamlin took to Twitter again: “Good news is next race is just a week away…I’m gonna call it ‘revenge weekend’.”
Unfortunately for team No. 11 the only revenge metered out at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway came from Hamlin’s valve-train; taking the car out of the race after just 105 of the scheduled 200 laps. The 39th place finish was a second straight terrible run and once again Hamlin took a dive down the standings and is some 75 points back from leader Carl Edwards.
Putting aside his tendency to be a notoriously slow starter, more worrying for Hamlin – and, indeed, all three Joe Gibbs drivers – is the repeated issues with the engines. Joey Logano, who has also endured a horrible start to 2011, blew up at Phoenix while the “new” Kyle Busch’s engine went (to use his word) “Kablooey” at Las Vegas.
After his own engine failure this past Sunday, Hamlin spoke candidly in the garage area. “At this point, yeah, now it’s starting to affect me. I’m worried a little bit more. It’s frustrating because you want to do the best you can each week.” He continued, “Mike (Ford, crew chief) and the team did a great job setting up the car and we had a fast car. It doesn’t matter in the end if you can’t finish the way you’re supposed to.”
But if there is one track at which you can all but put your mortgage on Hamlin finishing the way “you’re supposed to”, the venerable old .526-mile paperclip Martinsville Speedway would be the place. He’s won four races here, including the last three straight, and has 8 top-5’s and an average finish of 6.1 in 11 starts.
Rewind one year and the situation headed to the track in the foothills of the Virginia Blue Mountains was a similar tale. Hamlin had opened 2010 with finishes of 17th, 29th, 19th, 21st and 19th and compounding matters was forced to schedule surgery on his shredded left ACL for the day following the race – the injury a result of a pre-Daytona pick-up basketball game. Casey Mears was lined up to drive the No. 11 car at Phoenix, after the off-week, and it’s fair to say noone expected Hamlin to be able to recover in time to save his ailing season – even his most ardent fans.
What followed on that Monday, after a Sunday afternoon rainout, was arguably the best race of the 2010 season. In a thrilling 500-lap battle, Hamlin pitted from the lead with 10 to go while everyone else stayed out. Having led 170 laps already, and Jeff Burton excepted, been the class of the field, it looked as if his head wrench’s decision was a huge error. But with help from a green white checkered finish, Hamlin managed to muscle his way back in what was an amazing finish even by Martinsville standards. (“Watch the Highlights”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6zNsfDfgK4 )
The victory and his gritty effort fresh off knee surgery, staying in a car that went laps down early at Phoenix some ten days later, set the tone for a season that would, in the end, fall agonizingly short at the final hurdle. Battling back and proving people wrong became something of a mantra for a well-oiled race team that won a season best eight events and took a lead into the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway: something no driver had done to Johnson in his four straight titles.
Fast forward to the start of this year, nary a pundit tipped Hamlin to do much this year – suggesting a Carl Edwards in 2009 and Mark Martin in 2010 “coming oh-so-close to knocking Double J off his throne” style malaise was an almost foregone conclusion. So far, the popular pre-season prediction seems to be playing out.
The honest truth is that a fourth straight victory at Martinsville, despite his record, will probably not be Hamlin’s key agenda this weekend. The new points system – while indisputably clearer – punishes poor finishes much more than the old method and the No. 11 team simply cannot afford another: as much for morale as anything else.
When asked, post race, if a win was necessary this weekend, Hamlin preached caution, “It’s too early for that. We have to do everything we can at this point to get solid runs…We definitely need to get some solid finishes. We need to prove at this point we can finish a race.” Last year he had the doubts that swirled around his knee surgery to motivate and inspire a great year. This go-round it seems it’s more about mechanical parts. Either way, Hamlin needs a kick-start and he needs it sooner rather than later.
*Two quick points to finish up:* It’s great to see a Sadler on the Sprint Cup entry list for weekend. But it’s not Nationwide crown chasing Elliott, rather it’s his older brother Hermie, some five seasons removed from running a full Cup schedule, who will attempt to make his second straight Martinsville start. He finished 26th in October. Here’s hoping he gets it done again this weekend.
Finally, in my humble opinion it’s been an excellent start to a crucial season for the sport. From Trevor Bayne’s heartwarming Daytona 500 victory, Jeff Gordon’s first win since what seems like a decade and an epic final five laps in Sunday’s Cup race, there’s been something for everyone. And if you watched Harvick come from nowhere–with a move Cole Trickle himself would have been proud of–to pass Johnson on the final turn, and didn’t absolutely love the caliber of the racing you’re probably watching the wrong sport.
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