This offseason should have been two-plus months of rest, rehabilitation, and outright relaxation for Denny Hamlin. Why not? He’s one of only two drivers who could rest on their laurels. While Jimmie Johnson sat holding a sixth Sprint Cup, Hamlin stood victorious, taking the season finale at Homestead to salvage a nightmare nine months of stock car self-destruction. It was one filled with bad breaks, from the engine department, to carnage he couldn’t avoid, to a bad back that narrowly avoided offseason surgery.
Instead, what we learned Saturday night, is that in the midst of Tony Stewart’s comeback, drivers eager to show off in new rides and yes, that whole Stenhouse-Danica thing, Hamlin is ready to write Chapter One of his comeback story. While the others fell by the wayside, he took the checkered focused on making the statement that the Hamlin of old was “back.”
“I’d like to prove it to myself,” he said after winning the Sprint Unlimited, leaving him undefeated in a Cup car since November. “Homestead kind of came out of the blue, especially how our year had went. We started feeling better. I realized after the win in Homestead, how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel. When I feel comfortable in the car, especially in long runs and everything, you know, I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner.”
Denny Hamlin couldn’t be happier to be back racing. Was the Unlimited chapter one of a magical comeback season?
So far, so good. Yes, Saturday night was a Demolition Derby, with more responsive plate-racing cars causing aggression to get the best of the best drivers in the country. It’s what the Sprint Unlimited (er, Busch Clash) is all about, although the results were a little extreme; the fewest cars finished the race, eight, since eight of ten starters finished in 1987. But through it all, there was no doubt Hamlin had the fastest car. Leading all three segments, he was at his best out front and plenty capable in traffic, even after a late-race wreck by teammate Kyle Busch shuffled his car to the back in the third segment. Moving forward quickly, he timed his move perfectly as the laps wound down to blow by Brad Keselowski and make a clear statement his No. 11 will be a car to beat next Sunday.
“Obviously,” he reaffirmed. “This is huge motivation and confidence that we can do a lot of great things when all the pieces fall right for us.”
Of course, the pieces don’t fall right if the chemistry doesn’t fall right in line. It’s a far cry from last Fall, when Joe Gibbs Racing potentially considered firing crew chief Darian Grubb. In the end, a new car chief was hired, Wesley Sherrill, and the team set goals to repair relationships and treat 2013 as a simple anomaly. Throughout the Media Tour, Hamlin was adamant that it was simply a year he’d like to forget.
That’s easy to do when setting new memories centered on beating the competition. Even teammate Kyle Busch, whose spin and save Saturday night was one of the other big headliners recognized, how much Hamlin is on a mission.
“I think he lost too much time last year sitting on the sidelines,” joked Busch, in reference to Hamlin’s injury at Fontana. “So he’s got some wins to make up for.”
He’s also got a reputation to protect. Last season, Joe Gibbs Racing, while not the series champion, was also the class of the competition with Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. At Hendrick, there was Johnson, the champion and to an extent everyone else. The Kenseth-Busch combo won 11 times, led over 3,000 laps and gave the No. 48 team all it could handle for much of the Chase.
Mr. Hamlin? He was the forgotten man, critics wondering if he’d lost the mojo for good when the other JGR cars were so much faster. 2014 then becomes a critical year, in a business where even the slightest slip, in a world with few prime opportunities leaves the door open for that ride to be poached by somebody else. Rebuilding confidence, then, is key for a guy whose emotions have always dictated how he’ll run in the race car. And if Saturday night is any indication, well, the execs at both JGR and Fed Ex should be sitting at Daytona with wide smiles on their faces.
“Winning never hurts anything, especially when you finish a year with a win and then start the year with a win,” he explained. “You think the sky’s the limit. You think you can win every race from here on out.”
That’s the mark of a man on the mend.
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