Color me impressed. Seven months ago at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series season, if someone would have told me that Denny Hamlin would be the winningest driver on the season going into the final regular season race at Richmond, I would have laughed at them. I, along with many others in the NASCAR community, had written Denny Hamlin off as a serious title contender heading into 2012.
After all, it was Hamlin who entered this year reeling from a miserably disappointing 2011 season that saw the Virginian driver finish an unimpressive ninth in the standings with only five top-5 finishes on the year. 2011 (and the end of 2010 as well, of course) was so bad for Denny that he had to go see a sports psychologist to help reclaim all of his lost confidence. Not exactly the mindset known to be possessed by champions, to say the least.
But here we are, almost a full year later, and Denny Hamlin is on top of the NASCAR world once again.
After his win on Sunday night, Denny Hamlin is now likely to be the consensus favorite to win the 2012 title. He’s now won two straight races on two of the most difficult tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit, and his No. 11 team appears to be peaking at the right time; strong all season long and, at least for the time being, the hottest team in NASCAR. Heading into Richmond this week, the Internet will likely be filled with op-ed pieces from NASCAR journalists like myself telling you why Hamlin is the favorite for the title and how crew chief Darian Grubb has helped turn the No. 11 team around. Their opinions will be justified, but I am here to tell you that I still am not sold on Denny Hamlin. Not yet at least.
Some of you are probably wondering why I even brought up any doubts about Hamlin’s ability to contend for the title in the first place. Surely a driver who is leading the league in wins on the season and has strong backing from the powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing team would be an obvious favorite for the title. But there is so much more to this story than that.
For those short on memory, let’s go back in time for a bit to the start of the 2010 Chase. Entering the first race of the Chase that year in New Hampshire, Hamlin was riding a wave of momentum that got started all the way back in that year’s spring race at Martinsville. He had six wins and a comfortable spot atop the Chase standings. And the momentum didn’t stop there. Hamlin waltzed through the first eight Chase races and found himself leading the standings after a decisive “statement win” in Texas. Going into the penultimate race at Phoenix, Hamlin and the No. 11 team had a solid 33-point advantage over second place Jimmie Johnson and appeared primed to take the title away from Team 48.
Then the bottom fell out. A poor pit call by then crew chief Mike Ford lost Hamlin the race at Phoenix, and a 38th place starting spot in the final race of the season at Homestead killed both the confidence and momentum that the No. 11 team had so tirelessly built. Despite still holding the points lead going into Homestead, the No. 11 team, and specifically Hamlin himself, had already written themselves out of the title chase. As the story goes, Hamlin would go on to lose the title, and the “choke artist” moniker would forever become attached to Hamlin going forward. He was a beaten down man, and his 2011 season would end up serving testament to that.
Now, fast forward to 2012. Although much has changed for Denny Hamlin (namely a new crew chief and a new outlook on life), much has remained eerily the same. Once again, Hamlin will be the leader (or at least tied for the lead) entering the Chase. His team, once again, appears to be one of the strongest teams in the garage. All of the tools are in place for Hamlin to exorcise the demons from 2010 and win his maiden championship this year.
However, as far as I, and many others, are concerned, Hamlin’s mental breakdown at the end of 2010, along with his miserable 2011 season, calls such claims of title-winning potential into question. Has Hamlin really changed? Is he truly focused? Will he let his pride and emotions get in the way once again? Much has been made of the fact that Hamlin is very much the kind of person who is prone to experiencing lapses in self-confidence. If he truly wants to win the title, he absolutely cannot let his emotions or outside circumstances get inside his head. It burned him in 2010, and 2011 became a lost season for his team as a result.
Quite frankly, the jury is still out on whether or not Hamlin has truly put his psychological issues behind him. Although Hamlin did indeed bounce back from a mid-season slump, there have been times this year, specifically after the race two weeks ago in Michigan, in which it appeared that Hamlin looked dejected after weeks of bad luck tested the wherewithal of him and his team.
If Hamlin truly has addressed his past issues, then he is absolutely the leading candidate to win this year’s title. Both he and his team are too strong to overlook. But if bad luck strikes this team in the Chase, it will be a serious test for Hamlin to see if he truly has matured and is able to overcome misfortune.
Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team appear as ready as ever to make a run at the Sprint Cup title. But unless Hamlin has truly put his 2010 collapse behind him, he and his team will inevitably fall to the same fate once again. It’s put up or shut up time for Denny Hamlin.
If he really has matured, than this title is his for the taking.
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