Prior to qualifying and post-practice at Kansas Speedway this past weekend, Denny Hamlin tweeted the following: “Had a great day at the track today. Our FedEx Toyota should be a contender this weekend.”
Had this been 2010 it would have been expected, when Hamlin was so voracious a tweeter, so bold a prognosticator in just 140 characters that he made Brad Keselowski seem mute by comparison. But these kinds of confident predictions as to his equipment and race day chances have been few and far between for the Virginia native this past year and a half.
As it turns out, though, Hamlin’s auspicious prediction was indeed correct. He chased down class of the field Martin Truex Jr., who led 173 of 267 laps, overhauling the Michael Waltrip Racing driver with 31 laps to go on his way to a morale boosting second victory in eight races in 2012. From a bigger picture perspective it was also a record 199th victory for the No. 11 car, eclipsing the 198 wins for the No. 43 car. And just for the record, the third place car on the all time list is the No. 3 with 97 total victories – many of course which were authored by the inimitable intimidator himself – Dale Earnhardt.
But back to the modern day helter-skelter of the 2012 Sprint Cup season and the current incumbent of the No. 11 car. No one needs reminding how 2010 ended for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, least of all the man himself; but after appearing to sleep walk his way through a depressing slog of 2011 season, Hamlin is rejuvenated and ready to challenge once again in 2012.
One of the primary reasons Hamlin is suddenly so relevant, a word he used on the radio immediately after he took the checkers at Phoenix, is crew chief Darian Grubb. I know there are those who say Grubb wants to “prove something” after his departure from Stewart-Haas Racing, but I’ve never been of that opinion. In fact, I think it’s just good easy copy for writers. I just don’t think that revenge is in Grubb’s character. Of course he wants to win with Denny, but it’s all about winning with Denny and the whole JGR organization, not getting one back on a former employer. Grubb is an upstanding, decent family man; you only need to look at how he handled the end of 2012 to know that. This isn’t about beating Smoke; quite the contrary, it’s about winning with Hamlin. And what a win it was after looking second best to Martin Truex Jr. for the majority of Sunday’s race.
“It’s [the win] just big for the momentum for the entire Joe Gibbs organization. Everybody is working so hard just trying to improve everything,” said Grubb in the post race press conference. “We’ve had good cars, we got the win at Phoenix and we’ve had consistent good performances, but just not the wins that we wanted to get, so going out there and getting that now and working our way up in points, it’s showing that effort that’s going on with the fab shop and the engine shop and those guys doing everything they can do to make everything better. All these details are starting to add up.”
And if the details are already starting to add up just eight races into a new relationship, the rest of the garage should quickly realize, if they don’t already, that Hamlin, Grubb and the entire No. 11 team are on a mission with one singular goal this year: the Sprint Cup title.
The importance of a crew chief is absolutely not lost on the driver. “It’s not just about the driver,” said Hamlin. “It’s been a long time. Crew chiefs have won races when they don’t have the best car, but it’s been a long time since the best driver took a 15th place car and won with it based off of what he did inside the car.”
And he’s absolutely right. The calls Grubb makes in the long-term planning stages, in the shop during the week and of course at the track will be pivotal to Hamlin’s chances. Yes, it’s about the driver but it’s about the crew chief, the team and the organization as a whole. Without that, you’re driving around like an ailing David Reutimann at Martinsville.
Despite the bitter taste of defeat for Martin Truex, what’s good to note for both the JGR and MWR organizations is that the two major Toyota teams are finally really able to share information and to work together toward a common goal with the transition by JGR to Toyota Racing Development built power plants. Grubb’s existing relationships with the head wrenches at MWR has helped to facilitate this process but it’s the results on the track for Toyota’s first team. Said Hamlin: “We can now use some feedback from those guys [MWR]. It’s tough using feedback from teams that run 20th or so because you’ve got to kind of take it for what it is. But when you have five or six Toyotas all running up towards the front, then you really can start to tune in your program better and better.”
For now, though, it’s on to Hamlin’s hometown track, and one of the jewels on the Sprint Cup schedule – Richmond International Raceway. Two wins, six top-5s, eight top-10s, two poles and 1188 laps led in 12 races are the sort of stats most drivers would give a body part for, so expect Hamlin to be a factor for a win once again this weekend. Longer-term, as the Toyota teams strengthen and Hamlin’s bonds with Grubb deepen, the prognosis is good for the No. 11 team. Where it will finish is of course a long way in the future. But after a bright start and a pair of wins there’s plenty of reason for optimism and plenty of reason to suspect Hamlin will challenge deep into the Chase for that elusive first Sprint Cup crown.
*As an aside,* it’s also instructive to note the drivers who have won races in the No. 11 car, as it reads like a veritable Who’s-Who of NASCAR: Cale Yarborough (55 wins), Ned Jarrett (49), Darrell Waltrip (43), Denny Hamlin (19), Junior Johnson (11), Bill Elliott (6), Geoff Bodine (4), Terry Labonte (4), Bobby Allison (3), Buddy Baker (2), A.J. Foyt (1) Mario Andretti (1) and Parnelli Jones (1). It’s quite the list, including five of the 15 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and, in A.J Foyt and Mario Andretti, two of the greatest open wheel drivers of all time.
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