It’s the curse! And it’s taken hold of its latest victim.
Denny Hamlin, last year’s runner-up to Jimmie Johnson in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series battle, currently sits winless, 17th in points and has been virtually invisible through 2011. Hamlin is the latest in a long line of cursed drivers dating back to, well, when Johnson won his first championship.
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, Johnson has won the last five titles in the Sprint Cup Series, putting a stranglehold on the competition long enough for one president to serve a term and another to begin. There are children out there who only know one NASCAR champion! Oh, the poor children.
As I was saying, Hamlin is the latest driver to suffer under what I know as the “Jimmie Johnson curse.” Every year, save one, the driver who has posed the greatest challenge to Johnson in one of his championship tenures not only went winless the next season but went virtually unnoticed through the course of the year. It’s a bizarre turn of events that everyone denies will happen every season, yet it’s been all but foolproof since Johnson began his streak.
Matt Kenseth has been the only driver to escape that fate, losing the championship by 56 points in 2006 with four victories and following it up in 2007 with two victories and a fourth-place finish in points. Alright, so he fell off in performance a little bit, but it was still a good season. No big deal!
After that, though, it was all downhill. Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon mounted a serious charge against Johnson in 2007, winning six races and falling short by 77 points. The two drivers combined to win 16 of the 36 races that season, and most assumed Gordon and Johnson would be just the same the following year.
Only he wasn’t. Neither was Carl Edwards after finishing second to Johnson in 2008. Mark Martin even missed the Chase in 2010 after his runner-up finish to Johnson in 2009.
While no one knows for sure why this phenomenon has occurred, my best guess is that Johnson and his evil genius of a crew chief Chad Knaus formulated a plan in a hidden crevice on the grounds of the Hendrick Motorsports campus to forever annihilate the competition in their reign of terror. Because it is all their fault, right? It’s not the competitors’ jobs to figure out how to beat these guys, is it? No way.
Whatever causes it, though, Hamlin is one driver that hopes someone figures it out … and FAST! After all, through eight races last season, Hamlin had already won two races and was 11th in points.
I know what you’re thinking. “Hamlin was a slow starter last year, too! He’ll be fine. And anyway, it’s still early in the season. He still has time to catch up!”
You’re right. Hamlin _was_ a slow starter last year, with his first top 10 coming in the form of a victory at Martinsville Speedway in the sixth race of the season. In fact, Hamlin’s biggest hindrance was that he could get two top-5 finishes in a row followed by three finishes outside of the top 10. The highs were very high and the lows were very low until this organization established some consistency.
I’ll be fair to Hamlin, though: he did lead nearly 90 laps at Martinsville Speedway earlier this year, a track where he has four career victories. However, some bad luck left him with a less-than-stellar 12th-place finish, a competitive racecar with nothing to show for his efforts. That’s been by far their best performance of the season, a year in which all the Toyotas have struggled with the exception of Kyle Busch.
This weekend, though, Hamlin will once again have a chance to shake the bad luck. Richmond International Raceway is Hamlin’s home track, a track where he has two race wins and has led a total of 1,150 of the 4,010 laps run in the races he has competed in. In other words, Hamlin has utterly trashed the competition at RIR on several occasions.
If Hamlin doesn’t at least show some form of competitiveness in Saturday night’s Richmond race, not only will I be surprised but I think it will be safe to say it may be at least another year before Hamlin returns to his 2010 self.
Here’s an idea: Maybe Hamlin should bust up his knee again. After all, it worked out so well the last time!
But seriously, the bottom line is whatever is plaguing Hamlin needs to fix itself in a hurry and Richmond is just the track to do it. And as far as the “Jimmie Johnson Curse”, all they need to do is beat J.J. for the title and the curse will forever be beaten.
Easier said than done though, right?
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