Daytona has finally come and gone, and it was a wild event to say the least. So wild, in fact, that Matt Kenseth’s victory was really an afterthought, compared to both the events that went on during all the delays and the race itself. With that said, if Kenseth isn’t generating much buzz for winning, how is any other driver besides Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Danica Patrick going to get attention for how their season started?
Being that it is the Daytona 500, second through last place matter much less than any other race. No one is going to remember who finished second, let alone 20th in an event that’s different from any other on the circuit. So a fourth-place finish for many faded into the background as we head to Phoenix this week; however, you should at least take note of Denny Hamlin’s run Monday night.
Hamlin has yet to recover from his heartbreaking defeat in the 2010 season finale at Homestead, where he had a 15-point cushion over second place Jimmie Johnson going in. Part of what made it so heartbreaking was how phenomenal he was during the Chase, never finishing lower than 14th and picking up two wins to make his season total both a personal and series high of eight.
But the following season, Hamlin suffered the runner-up hangover that many drivers seem to have endured over the last several years, and while he still made the Chase last season, 2011 was a year to forget. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota managed to win only once at Michigan, last June, suffering career lows in top-5’s (5) and top-10’s (14) while his 16.0 average finish was lower than any other season in which he ran the entire schedule. Along the way, there were even rumors of a crew chief swap within the organization that would send Greg Zipadelli over to Hamlin’s camp while his crew chief, Mike Ford, would be the head wrench for teammate Joey Logano. The rumors never became a reality, but questions arose as to whether Hamlin and Ford could co-exist for much longer, even though the duo had been together since late 2005, accumulating 17 wins and making the Chase every year.
This past offseason, car owner Joe Gibbs finally made a drastic change for the Virginia native. Ford was out and replacing him was Darian Grubb, the man who led Tony Stewart to his third career title and a record five wins in the Chase despite already knowing he would be gone at season’s end. The crew chief change has many believing that Hamlin will back in championship contention this year.
We are just one race in, but Hamlin’s performance in the Daytona 500 was a statement that he is back. The 2.5-mile speedway is one that he has historically struggled at – prior to Monday’s race, Hamlin had only one top-10 finish at the venue, which was a third in the 2009 July event. Fill the pieces in, and you can quickly figure out that means he never had a top-10 finish in the Great American Race. As a matter of fact, the Virginia native hadn’t been all that close, with the best result being a 17th-place effort on two separate occasions.
Hamlin didn’t just luck into his fourth-place finish on Monday. If anything, he was unlucky. After leading a race-high 57 laps, which is more than the total laps led in his previous six Daytona 500s combined, Hamlin was without a drafting partner in the final laps. He was one of a very select few that could actually push a driver to the front, and if there was someone right in front of him at the end, then he very well could have won, a sentiment backed up by the driver himself right after the race.
“We were right where we wanted to be, but we didn’t have any teammates up there and those two Roush cars up front had a good plan and executed it really well,” said Hamlin. “Hard to believe the two-car tandem didn’t win it, really. Proud of our FedEx team — we had an awesome effort this weekend.”
It was indeed a very impressive outing for the No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin is already off to a much better start this season as opposed to a year ago, when it took him nine races to get his first top-5 finish of the year. The speed seems to be there, but now the question will be reliability and handling. While Daytona was a great run, it doesn’t dictate the entire season. Just ask Bobby Labonte, who finished in the same spot as Hamlin in last year’s 500. Labonte, whose finish surprised many enjoyed just one more top-10 run the rest of the year and fell all the way back to 29th in the final standings. That is unlikely to be the case with Hamlin, but his team must avoid all the mechanical problems that plagued them a year before, which led to one DNF and countless setbacks in other races. The fact that he was able to push other cars without encountering engine problems at Daytona is a good sign, but there are still many races to go.
All three JGR drivers have something to prove this year. Kyle Busch must show he can go an entire season without any controversy and prove he can compete in the Chase. It is likely go or go home time for Joey Logano, who has been somewhat of a bust after having one of the most anticipated rookie campaigns in recent memory. Like Hamlin, Logano has a new crew chief in Jason Ratcliff, and must show some sign of potential this year if he wishes to remain in a competitive car.
But for Denny Hamlin, he doesn’t need to prove he belongs in the Cup Series like Logano or that can compete for the title like Busch. He has accomplished both. What he needs to prove is that he can rebound from not only an “off” year (off by Hamlin’s standards – many drivers would kill to have that type of season) and also show that the nightmare ending of the 2010 campaign is past him. With Darian Grubb now at the top of the pit box, anything less would be considered a disappointment. It won’t be easy; but if this week is any indication, the rest of 2012 looks quite promising for the top driver at JGR.
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