20 points down in the title Chase, entering Sunday Martinsville for Denny Hamlin was pivotal. At a place where he’d won four times, more than at any Cup track on the schedule, a fifth would put him back in the throes of title contention. With rival Jimmie Johnson just as successful, the race was a clear case of make-or-break.
So Hamlin heaved a deep breath, took the green and followed the path of so many Joe Gibbs Chase contenders before him.
“What can you do?” said the driver after a faulty master switch caused the gauges on his No. 11 Toyota to go haywire, then eventually shut off in a 33rd-place finish that wiped out his chances for the championship. “I’ve been in these Chases for seven years and I’ve had my fair share of electrical issues and motor issues and things like that. All I can do is just drive my heart out and if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.”
That’s been the mantra of Joe Gibbs Racing too many times since they last earned a piece of the Chase hardware in 2005. That was Tony Stewart’s second title, his last with JGR as they had pulled off their third championship in six seasons. It was their three-car operation, not Hendrick Motorsports that appeared positioned to stay atop the NASCAR landscape for years to come.
Instead, Sunday was a clear case of “wasn’t meant to be.” Hamlin, who arrived on the scene in 2006 has borne the brunt of that. Making the Chase each of his seven seasons, winning at least one race in each he’s put himself in position to contend. Twice, in ’06 and ’10, he’s come to Homestead mathematically eligible to take home the title. But it’s never happened, the best opportunities shot down through nothing more than “Lady Luck.” His first year, entering the Chase as a rookie there was a Cinderella challenge until getting wrecked at Charlotte. That was the same year Stewart, still fresh off the title, didn’t even get a chance to defend after a rough race at Richmond.
And so the downturn for JGR, under the ten-race postseason format, began. Stewart, in 2007, wrecked at Kansas after leading and was out of the title hunt by mid-October. Hamlin? He bowed out one race earlier, a mishandling of lapped traffic leading to a wreck and near fistfight with Kyle Petty. The following season marked the arrival of Kyle Busch, who dominated the regular season with eight wins. Yet despite entering as the Chase’s top seed, the No. 18 team endured a 1-2 punch of mechanical mayhem. After he blew an engine at Dover, running dead last their postseason “favorite” tag was reduced to failure. It was a bout of bad luck, adversity from which they’d never recover.
In 2009, Busch missed the Chase leaving Hamlin as the best opportunity for JGR success (Stewart, by then had left for his own team, replaced by rookie Joey Logano). With two top-5 finishes in the first three races, Hamlin perched himself on the fringes of contention and was leading the race heading to a crucial restart at Fontana. But a bizarre incident, where Hamlin cut down across the nose of Juan Pablo Montoya, stifled that momentum and handed it to Hendrick and Johnson. An engine failure at Charlotte, one race later, meant Hamlin’s Chase was done.
It was the following year, 2010 where JGR had the best chance at the top spot. With two races left, a scintillating victory at Texas left Johnson on the ropes and Hamlin holding a healthy lead in the title Chase. But the following week, crew chief Mike Ford made the wrong call at Phoenix, bringing Hamlin in for a late-race stop while Jimmie Johnson stayed out to save gas. Despite having some of the worst fuel mileage of any championship contender, the No. 48 slithered to the checkers and Hamlin’s momentum was stalled. A Homestead wreck, suffered early in the season finale seemed a mere formality as the mental defeat had already occurred. Trash talk, from Mike Ford at Texas had turned into a terrible tragedy that would, in all likelihood be responsible for his departure from the No. 11 team one year later.
Last season, it was Busch’s turn to bust. He entered the playoffs as the top seed, riding high with four regular season wins. But he wasn’t to see another in the final 10 races. Already appearing crushed, with just one top-5 finish in the first seven postseason Cup events, an ugly wreck in a Truck race at Texas — one that put Ron Hornaday, Jr. at risk — led to a one-race suspension for aggressive behavior. As a result, Busch nearly lost his sponsorship and wound up dead last in the Chase.
And so it goes. Hamlin, the only postseason participant for JGR in 2012 has been hamstrung by bad luck again; and now, the smiles and Chase confidence is faltering.
What will it take for JGR to regain their spot at the top of the sport?
32 in October, Hamlin will be entering his prime and will be joined next season by 2003 titlist Matt Kenseth. Kyle Busch, hoping to sign a long-term extension with the team is under 30 years old. A trio of pieces, in theory, are there for JGR to score a title at some point.
It’s just the parts, dumb luck and mental health that need to hold up. Easier said than done.