2010 title contender falters out of the gate
by Tom Bowles
In sports, as in life, success and failure have an undeniable history of rotating in cycles. But for superstars, like MLB’s Derek Jeter or even NASCAR’s own Jimmie Johnson, they stand out by clinging to a bright side continually balanced in their direction more than most. The key? It’s an innate ability to keep believing in themselves in the worst of times, even when the majority of others are convinced their best days have simply passed by for good. Like clockwork, they use intense, internal motivation to get the most out of everyone around them, pulling out of slumps faster than most faced with adversity.
Denny Hamlin was seemingly predestined to acquire that lesson in 2010. During the first four years of his career, the knock on Hamlin was that he was too emotional, prone to either inappropriate outbursts or breakdowns in self-esteem that wouldn’t allow sustenance of the 10-race success rate NASCAR’s championship format requires. There was the infamous dustup with Kyle Petty at Dover, a disastrous shouting match en route to a last-place Chase debacle in 2007. The next season there were the summer doldrums of dysfunctional engines, a public confidence crisis in which his crew was called out on its way to an eighth-place points finish without a hint of championship contention. And then in 2009 — the kicker — Hamlin’s self-inflicted wound came courtesy of a spin while leading at Fontana before two additional mechanical failures finished off his ailing postseason bid.
So a NASCAR life of unfulfilled expectations is where Hamlin stood heading into Texas one year ago, saddled with the unrelenting pain of ACL surgery just three weeks earlier. There had been some bright spots — like an unlikely Martinsville victory before going under the knife — but after slogging through a painful 30th at Phoenix the Saturday prior, simply making the postseason was a legitimate question for his short-term future. Clearly, labeling him Johnson’s next rival for the championship was about as likely a proposition as Butler putting the ball in the basket against UConn.
So when Hamlin qualified 29th the next weekend at Texas — and with substitute driver Casey Mears still on standby — some wondered whether the 500-mile distance would be too much for his recovering body. As Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart led the majority of the race, little thought was given to a driver behind them that spent the first 450 miles having an eye-opening, albeit behind-the-scenes, run towards the front — despite still struggling to walk outside the car.
But after a field-decimating, multi-car wreck on lap 319 of 334 changed the scope of the race, it was the No. 11 FedEx Toyota that became the best car still standing, so to speak. Leading the final 12 laps, the emotional trip to Victory Lane was as shocking as it was strong enough to turn the table on that cycle of life; suddenly, a career of failing to overcome adversity had been halted, a two-tire call by crew chief Mike Ford creating the perfect synergy for this prizefight between driver and team.
“We’ve never hit the panic button,” Hamlin claimed that day. “We’ve never been down on ourselves because we haven’t gotten to the expectations a lot of people put on us at the beginning of the year and I put on myself.
“My expectations, where I thought I could be at the end of this year still can happen.”
Suddenly, the internal motivation the superstars use with regularity had appeared. Hamlin had a bum knee, painkillers and at Phoenix, even went against the proper medical advice of doctors on his comeback. But he also had the Texas trophy to prove them wrong, along with the respect of a crew that now stood behind its driver’s every move.
Fast forward to the fall race at Texas, where the 2010 season had become Mr. Hamlin’s playground. Five victories had followed that April renaissance, sending the No. 11 team soaring into the Chase combined with the consistency and experience needed to contend. Playing the postseason perfectly, Hamlin survived the wild card of Talladega, maximized opportunities at his best tracks (Loudon and Martinsville) and put the pressure on a No. 48 team that had nearly forgotten the meaning of the word.
Texas, Part Deux, seemed to put the final touches on what would be the crowning masterpiece of taking this career to the next level. Starting 30th, Hamlin’s march to the front was as methodical as Johnson’s team collapse proved mesmerizing. Poor pit stop after poor stop facilitated Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, to actually replace part of their championship crew in-race, simply to salvage ninth as Hamlin blew by Mark Martin, dominated the last 29 laps and pulled off the season sweep going away. Leaving the speedway, his lead stood at 33 points over Johnson, the title firmly within his grasp if only the team could make it through the next two weeks unscathed.
It was then that ugly cycle-of-life thing, which separates established superstars and hope-to-be ones, turned the wrong direction. Mr. Johnson was in his down cycle, attempting to overcome adversity when it was Hamlin’s own organization that chose to mess with that seesaw.
“We saw them making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard, and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes, so I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention,” crew chief Mike Ford said of Knaus’ move to change the pit crew. “That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so. I think it was kind of a desperation move.”
Ouch. Not exactly the words of endearment for a then-four-time championship team that awoke to the reality the No. 11 team hadn’t won anything yet – so why were they talking?
“I think in Texas,” Johnson would say two weeks later. “The gloves came off.”
The punches that followed were ones Hamlin struggled to absorb, betrayed by the team that had made the mortal mistake they accused Johnson of: focusing on others instead of themselves.
The following week, it was Ford who made a faulty call to pit for fuel at Phoenix, donating points to their rival and setting a championship finale everyone knows: the No. 11 team, not the 48, spinning and self-destructing on the public stage. There’s been zero victories, zero top-5 finishes and plenty of griping in the eight races since — from motor problems, to poor pit stops, to simply bad adjustment calls by the driver/crew chief duo.
“We need to work on who we’re going to have change tires for us,” said Hamlin Sunday, after ugly Martinsville stops caused Ford to pull his front tire changer for teammate Joey Logano’s mid-race – copying the “desperation move” he saw across the way last fall. “At this point, I’m just happy we finished the race, being everything that’s going on.”
Which brings us full circle and back to Texas, where Hamlin has a chance to rewrite history once again. The time to salvage this season is ticking, problems mounting while rivals like Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and teammate Kyle Busch rack up wins and points. History, the type that loves to repeat itself, stands firmly against Hamlin’s resurgence. None of the five championship runner-up finishers to Johnson climbed higher than fourth in points the following year. So far this season, the 1.5-mile ovals have handed the No. 11 car a nondescript seventh (Las Vegas) and a 39th-place DNF (Fontana) after the engine went sour. The team, for all intents and purposes, seems to have never recovered from its late-season collapse — with the relationships in most need of mending centering around driver and crew chief.
So no, the only thing left right now to aid Hamlin’s recovery is that internal motivation, showcased by the superstars he aspires to emulate but has failed to match as of yet. To do it, he’ll need to start by taking a deep breath, remembering this race one year ago and what it meant to everyone around him.
“The choice (at Phoenix) to not get out of the car, that would be the easy thing to do,” Hamlin said back then of his ACL injury. “That would be the thing, you know, hey, our day's shot to hell. Easiest thing to do is just get out and let him (Mears) take over.
“But maybe the pit crew doesn’t give me the best stop, I don’t get out of the car and just say, ‘Hell with it. Someone else drive it.’ That’s not the way to be.”
But for much of 2011, that’s been the way it is internally at Joe Gibbs Racing, the type of attitude that perpetuates the cycle, not change its course.
There’s so much talk at JGR about the “new” Kyle Busch, who has changed his immature ways and currently leads the point standings. But really, the story now becomes whether the old, mature Hamlin can come back before it’s too late. That “superstar” label may depend on it.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: (@NASCARBowles)