Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: What’s Happened to Denny Hamlin and Who Is the Real Closer?

*ONE: Can Denny Hamlin get back to his winning ways at Texas?*

To say the season so far has been a nightmare for Denny Hamlin is a huge understatement. Last year, Hamlin was the most dominant driver on the circuit, winning eight races, only to come up short in the championship hunt to Jimmie Johnson. But toward the end of the season, there was trouble brewing in the world of Joe Gibbs Racing. After the team’s win at Texas, Mike Ford foolishly tried to play head games with Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Home Improvement crew, while poor fuel mileage cost Hamlin a huge points swing at Phoenix that, instead of possibly clinching a championship, would end up being the harbinger of sorrow and despair for Hamlin at Homestead.

The 2011 season started off on the wrong foot for Hamlin when there was a fire at the Joe Gibbs Racing engine dyno shop. Since then, there have been a myriad of pit road and mechanical issues, along with incidents not of Hamlin’s doing. And perhaps worst of all? The harmony between Mike Ford and Denny Hamlin seems to be shattered. While a win at Texas would certainly go a long way in repairing the strained relationship between Hamlin and Ford, at this stage, the team is in such a state of emergency that just getting a top 10 would be an accomplishment for Hamlin and company. While, yes, they’re staring down the barrel of having to rely on wins to even get them in the Chase, the team probably needs to just worry about having one race without anything going wrong instead of a victory…because a win might be too much to ask from them at the moment.

*TWO: Will Kyle Busch be able to close the deal this week?*

Though Busch has spent a great deal of time at the front of the Sprint Cup field in 2011, he has only one checkered flag to show for all that dominance thus far.

So close, yet so far has been the theme to Kyle Busch’s 2011 Sprint Cup Series campaign. In addition to his impressive Bristol weekend, he has had the dominant car at Phoenix, California, and Martinsville, only to lose in the closing laps. Love him or hate him, one cannot deny the fact that Kyle Busch, to date in the 2011 season, has shown more signs of maturity than in the past. In recent years, when a race slipped away from him, he pitched conniption fits worthy of a toddler. But this year, he has remained relatively calm, which leads to a pair of underlying questions with Kyle. First, can he keep his composure all season and two, if and/or when his next meltdown happens, will we see him go back into “Kyle Smash” mode?

Both of those questions remain to be answered, but as far as Kyle closing the deal goes, eventually he’s going to be able to dominate a race from start to finish this season and not get passed in the late stages. The real question fans have to wonder would be is Kyle using up his equipment too early in races, leaving himself vulnerable for these late-race passes? That question begs a definite answer, as he has said his car has gone away in those situations, so could he be using his best stuff up too soon? But back on the burning question, if Kyle can save his best stuff for the end of the race, there is no reason that he can’t win…meaing he and DW’s nauseating “bro-mance” could get more annoying at Texas.

*THREE: Can Kevin Harvick win three races in a row in the closing laps?*

In recent weeks, Kevin Harvick has become the best closer in sports this side of Mariano Rivera. To win on the last lap at his home track in California and win with four laps to go at Martinsville, in addition to his impressive last-lap charge in the Talladega spring race last year, has more than cemented his reputation as the best closer in NASCAR. This week again, the big burning question is can he do it again?

It’s certainly not out of the question, as Harvick has had success before at Atlanta, a track very similar to Texas in many ways, both in length and shape. But might it be too much to ask out of Harvick to win another race in the closing laps? Eventually, even the best closers in any sport aren’t always able to close the deal and after the drama of the last couple of weeks, it is going to be extremely difficult for Harvick to top his late-race heroics at California and Martinsville. Can he do it? He very well could. How is he going to top himself? Now that, Frontstretch readers, is the true million dollar question at the end of the day.

*FOUR: Will this be the week that Dale Earnhardt Jr. rediscovers victory lane?*

Last week may have been the first time long-suffering Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans have seen any kind of light at the end of the tunnel in terms of his long winless streak. In the late stages, Earnhardt Jr. overtook Kyle Busch for the lead and the Martinsville grandstands erupted with joy. Even Darrell Waltrip erupted in biased-ness in the FOX analysts booth. But with four laps to go, Kevin Harvick took the lead and won the race, leaving Junior’s fans to wonder what might have been.

Going into Texas, it’s starting to seem as if Junior and new crew chief Steve Letarte just might be the combination needed to get Rick Hendrick’s true cash cow back into victory lane. Letarte provides the type of calming influence for Junior that he hasn’t had since Tony Eury Sr. was his crew chief and Earnhardt Jr. has taken to it rather well with the results on track starting to show signs of chemistry. Junior’s in the top 10 in points for the first time since early last year and he’s been able to more consistently be up front. Plus, Junior has had success at mile and a half tracks in years past, so it’s not as if a win would be a foreign concept to him at a track like Texas.

But the underlying question is can Junior keep running consistently up front? That answer will be more apparent the later into the season it gets; don’t forget Earnhardt got off to a top 10 start last season. But 2011 has brought consistency so far to the No. 88 team. And that consistency, in the words of the great Charlie Sheen, will lead to, duh, winning!

“Contact Brody Jones”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/32699/

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