Race Weekend Central

Shakedown Session: Oh, How The Mighty Have Fallen!

One year ago, Denny Hamlin was on top of the world. He had an eight-win season and was the first driver in recent memory to put noticeable chinks in the armor of five-time defending Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson. Hell, he had Johnson practically on the ropes until Phoenix last season. But going into the 2011 campaign, there was a great deal of hope that Hamlin could again duplicate his success from 2010 and maybe even finish the job that he fell short of the previous year. Surely Hamlin would be able to pick up where he left off, right?

Wrong. The 2011 season has been nothing short of a never-ending night-mare for Denny Hamlin. The season started off on the wrong foot when the JGR engine shop caught on fire and in the Bud Shootout, Hamlin had what appeared to be a victory taken away from him for going below the yellow line to pass Shootout winner Kurt Busch. In fact, his first eight races of the season were pretty much a disaster of Hindenburg-esque proportions. To only have one top-10 in the first eight races and have to deal with rumors that crew chief Mike Ford was getting the axe? Welcome to “Ouch Town,” Population: Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team.

There was a bit of a resurgence in the next several races as Hamlin strung together several top-10 finishes over five of the next seven races, including a win at Michigan. But the win at Michigan did not come without controversy as Hamlin was busted for unapproved oil pans before the race. And since then? Hamlin has only cracked the top-10 four times in 12 races, thanks to a cournicopia of misfortune in the form of flat tires, crashes, and various other setbacks.

The capper to an already disappointing season was a poor finish at Chicagoland Sunday that left Hamlin with a 31st-place finish and pretty much out of contention for the Sprint Cup Series championship, now sitting 41 points back from points leader Kevin Harvick. This was like salt, no, scratch that, lemon juice in the already open wounds of the No. 11 FedEx team. Which begs the question how on earth could a team this good fall from grace this fast?

Was it the fire at the Joe Gibbs Racing shop? Was it the apparent Bud Shootout win being taken away? Or, does it stem further back to the Phoenix race where Hamlin essentially blew his opportunity to prevent Jimmie Johnson from winning his fifth consecutive championship? Or, does the real problem lie with Mike Ford? Despite the insistence of Hamlin and Ford that nothing is wrong with their crew chief/driver relationship, with the disappointing performance this year, and watching the actions of Ford and Hamlin at times toward each other, it’s clear that their relationship is not quite as harmonious as it once was.

But fans of Denny Hamlin shouldn’t fret too much about their driver’s misfortunes this year. Hamlin, at 31 years old, is just now hitting the prime of his career. He will be back as a championship contender and possibly even win a Sprint Cup championship or two before he hangs up the helmet. But NASCAR fans can’t help but wonder what has gone wrong this year for Hamlin and how can the bleeding be stopped.

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