2011 Ride: No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
2011 Primary Sponsor: FedEx
2011 Owner: Joe Gibbs
2011 Crew Chief: Mike Ford
2011 Stats: 36 starts, 1 win, 5 top fives, 14 top 10s, 0 poles, ninth in points
High Points: The simple answer here is next question: there really weren’t really any high points for the Chesterfield, Va. native in 2011. The longer answer would be that all-important victory at Michigan in June, without which Hamlin would have missed the Chase for the first time in six full seasons racing at NASCAR’s highest echelon. And if you make the Chase in your worst seasons, that bodes well. But overall, 2011 was a year Hamlin will be best served by putting swiftly in the rearview mirror. After such a strong 2010, the chances were 2011 would bring a “oh-so-close, but not close enough” style hangover and so it proved.
Low Points: Where to start? From the bizarre incident in testing at Daytona, where his steering wheel wasn’t fitted on properly and the car swerved crazily through the infield grass, 2011 was pretty much a terrible season for Hamlin. Failing to win at his “banker” tracks such as Martinsville, Richmond and Pocono would be other low points for a driver who has set high standards in his seven years at the Cup level.
Summary: 2011 goes down as Hamlin’s worst season since starting to run full-time in 2006, with career lows in top fives, top 10s, poles, average starts and average finishes. Only a 12th-place effort in 2007 saves him from his lowest-ever points position. Yet for all the negativity and all the issues that beset the entire No. 11 team throughout 2011, Hamlin won a race, made the Chase and finished ninth. All told there are drivers who would bite off your hand to take that kind of a season. 2011 has been a long, drawn-out painful affair for Hamlin; the good news is it’s now over.
Team Ranking: First. 2011 will certainly not go down as a banner year for Joe Gibbs Racing, so Hamlin’s first-place rating doesn’t really mean an awful lot. Speaking of awful, that’s the best descriptor for his teammate Joey Logano’s season while Kyle Busch’s problems need no recapping here.
Off-Track News: A sponsorship with Jumpman, Michael Jordan’s company, the only NASCAR driver to have this designation was probably the highlight. That and not being fined on Twitter (or at least as far as we know) just about sum it up for Hamlin in 2011.
2012 Outlook: Despite it being an unpopular decision at the time, the No. 11 team’s choice to switch to the new Toyota Racing Development engine, with around a third of the season still to run, will pay dividends headed into 2012. All three JGR teams will run the TRD powerplants next season and the head start from Hamlin’s team can only be a benefit.
With a chastened Kyle Busch likely to knuckle down, focused on winning a title, and Logano in desperate need of a good year, expect 2012 to be better for all three and Hamlin in particular. Provided the team has the speed, Hamlin’s too good of a driver not to be in contention in 2012.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: A-
2007 Grade: B-
2008 Grade: B
2009 Grade: A-
2010 Grade: A
2011 Grade: C-
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