Preseason Rank: 11
They say in sports that second place is the first loser. But in NASCAR, those runner-up finishers truly don’t know what it’s like to suffer until the following year. Since 2007, whoever has run second in points one season has either missed the Chase or failed to contend for the title the next. Combined, they’ve totaled just one win among them, never finishing higher than seventh in points, and they’ve seen their laps led totals go down an astounding 73 percent.
Last year, it was Denny Hamlin’s turn to play the victim, as his Toyota team stumbled through a floundering season. Now, he must hope 2012 will serve as a road to recovery. Let’s lay out the process:
Step 1: Rebuild through a second marriage. Many pointed to a strain in the relationship between Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, the only pit boss Hamlin has had during his time in the Sprint Cup Series, as 2011’s biggest problem. A rift left over from the 2010 Chase never healed, although both sides vehemently denied any change was needed.
“There is no decision,” the driver exclaimed last April. “Mike is my guy. He will always be my guy.”
Until he isn’t. Two weeks after last season ended, JGR management finally forced both sides to sign divorce papers. Now, it’ll be up to 2011 championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb to reconstruct this once title-worthy team back into a contender.
“Excited to have Darian join the JGR/FedEx family,” Hamlin tweeted on the hire, referring to his season as Redemption 2012.
In a way, you can assign the same title to his new head wrench. Grubb was cast aside at Stewart-Haas Racing, told he’d be let go at season’s end prior to the Chase after Stewart appeared unhappy about communication and regular-season performance. That they still won it all speaks volumes about Grubb’s dedication to his job and his engineer’s mind that doesn’t let emotion mess with on-track success.
The challenge now is inching Hamlin closer to that mentality after seeing a sports psychologist to help get over the 2010 disappointment. Even if that helps, Hamlin will require the type of cheerleading role Grubb never had to fill with Stewart when the going gets tough. Can both sides compromise in time to find first-season success together?
One bonus to this new arrangement is fresh ideas, as mechanical energy is badly needed within a Gibbs camp that ended 2011 lost in its chassis development. But throw in the fact that all teams will be using the new Electronic Fuel Injection this year — coupled with JGR’s new engine alliance with Toyota Racing Development — and Grubb is going to have a lot on his plate just getting the cars to the track.
Step 2: Find a little extra horsepower. In 2012, JGR will be using Toyota’s aforementioned TRD engine full-time after closing up its engine shop late in 2011. The switch can’t come soon enough, as Hamlin suffered a number of engine failures in practice sessions, leading to one DNF, and was down in power in several other races before kick-starting the TRD transition last summer. Removing what once was JGR’s biggest strength — the motor room — from the equation should lead to growing pains. For the first time, outside resources will help determine the success and failure of an organization that’s learned to survive strictly in its own bubble.
Step 3: Get the brain back in gear. Does Hamlin have the mental toughness to bounce back to where he once was? Speaking during Championship Week in Las Vegas, he tried to give that impression.
“I can tell you from my head right now where I’m at — I’m more motivated right now than I was (in 2010),” he said. “I was looking more to get past 2010 and just get on with it. This year, I’m thinking let’s get to 2012. I feel like myself and this team have something to prove. The fire burns in you to show that you’re not a ninth-place team, you’re not a ninth-place driver and you deserve better than that.”
Now, with all the pieces still in place, including mega-bucks sponsor FedEx, Hamlin has to put his money where his mouth is — his 6-for-6 showing in playoff appearances notwithstanding. Up to now, Hamlin has shown in his career that when the going gets tough, he has a tendency to slip further behind (see: the last two Chases). Until Hamlin proves that he can take the punches that come his way and bounce back from them, that runner-up finish in 2010 will be the best one he’ll ever see.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
The 2010 runner-up entered the 2011 season as a favorite to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, but Hamlin’s season never produced the expected results. Plagued by mechanical failures, poor finishes and inconsistency, Hamlin was never a threat for the championship. Questions of his relationship with crew chief Mike Ford finally were answered when Darian Grubb was hired in the offseason to assume head wrench duties.
“One of the most perplexing drivers in NASCAR,” says one media member. “Which Hamlin will show up this year?”
A rival crew chief also wonders about his state of mind. “He’s seeing a sports psychologist, so that tells me the 2010 deal really did a number on him. You have to figure if he gets past it he can challenge for another championship. He did manage a win last year, after all. And so did Darian — in a big way.”
Top 5s: 5
Top 10s: 14
Laps Led: 450
Laps Completed: 10,482
Lead Lap Finishes: 26
Bonus Points: 20
Races Led: 15
Average Start: 17.1
Average Finish: 16.0
After First 26 Races: 12th
Final Points Standing: 9th
Driver Rating: 88.1 (11th)
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.