Previews, predictions and stats for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team
ESPN produced a commercial for its Chase for the Sprint Cup coverage last season with several humorous snippets of things Denny Hamlin doesn’t find worse than losing. They included Hamlin having to pull on a wool sweater over a full-body sunburn, and a scene where he found out his favorite Mexican restaurant had suddenly turned into a year-round Christmas store.
Part of a series, the spots were a lighthearted take on the pressures a NASCAR driver endures in search of career-defining events like race wins and championships. But the pain, as Hamlin knows all too well, is tangible and real when a car doesn’t handle, breaks down or, for whatever reason, just doesn’t win.
Every driver suffers those moments, and they sting every time. For Hamlin, who carries the weight of his disappointments quite visibly, they’ve started to be a bit too routine. A Chase driver in all seven of his full-time Cup seasons, Hamlin has yet to win a title, and one would argue that he was a favorite in two out of the last three before seeing his dreams come crashing down.
Making matters worse, Hamlin has really only whiffed in his closest title fights thanks to factors beyond his control. In 2010, there was the botched pit call by since-departed crew chief Mike Ford in the penultimate race. Last season, Hamlin watched his title hopes flip away at Martinsville when the master power switch — the most basic of parts — failed in his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11.
It’s not hard to see why the Virginia native has a sports psychologist on retainer.
“I wish it just could be ‘experience beats all’ and that’s how you win a championship,” Hamlin says. “But nowadays, it’s about having an awesome pit crew, a guy on the box that makes great calls, and fast cars.”
Hamlin, of course, has all of that. The JGR shop puts together plenty of stout pieces over the course of a season, has the cash to pay for top pit and garage talent, and enjoys the substantial backing of Toyota. The seemingly interminable weakness of the organization is a lack of reliability, whether engines or other internal components.
Still, JGR’s longest-tenured driver is bullish about his future working with champion crew chief Darian Grubb. Hamlin joined up with Grubb at the start of last season when Ford and JGR parted ways.
“I just think I have a lot of faith in (Grubb) and I never really second-guess what he has to say, and if I do, then I feel very adamantly about what I think and with the situation,” Hamlin says. “But beyond that, I think that he just does an amazing job with the team. I have never seen my crew guys, whether it be pit crew or the guys that travel on the road, just be so excited to go to the racetrack every weekend.”
That enthusiasm can often be a key indicator of success in the grind of the NASCAR schedule thanks to the residual positives it can have on preparation and coordination of teamwork. Cooperation will play a key role for JGR this season as it brings aboard Matt Kenseth to replace Joey Logano in the No. 20. Hamlin knows he could stand to benefit from working again alongside a former champion like Kenseth with such a smooth demeanor.
“I look forward to that communication and just hearing about how (Matt) did things versus how we do things, and, really, that’s what makes teams stronger,” Hamlin says. “When Kyle came over in 2008, it was that drive that kind of pushed me to that next level — having someone come over and push you to be better. I think it’s going to be no different with Matt.”
Getting a maturing Hamlin — he became a first-time father in January — back to the Chase this season shouldn’t be too difficult for JGR. Now in its second year of working with Toyota Racing Development as an engine supplier, JGR’s growing pains should ease. Hamlin, for his part, is more than capable of reeling off wins in big numbers — and the addition of Kenseth to the stable may prove to be the ultimate game-changer for an organization that hasn’t won a Cup title since 2005 with Tony Stewart.
The biggest question for Hamlin and JGR remains the same this season as last: Can they build cars that consistently finish without beating themselves? Until the team proves it, that jury is still out.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
Is the crushing blow of fumbling away the 2010 Chase to Jimmie Johnson out of Denny Hamlin’s system?
“I believe it is,” a media member says. “It’ll always stick with him in some fashion, but that team looked pretty solid last season with their five wins. There are times when I question his mental strength in crucial moments, but I don’t think those issues have anything to do with 2010.”
A rival crew chief notes that Hamlin is talented, but he has some pointed remarks for the 32-year-old:
“He is a very good racer — extremely intense. And he gets the job done when things are right. His problem, though, is that his personality sucks. He just has an attitude that can turn people off to him. He hasn’t won anything yet (from a championship perspective) so he needs to lose the attitude and work on getting to the top.”
Another crew chief is interested to see what Matt Kenseth’s leadership does for Joe Gibbs Racing’s two young talents:
“Denny was vocal about getting Matt in that 20 car. Can Matt teach those two loose cannons how to rein in some of the nonsense and see the big picture? We’ll see.”
Looking at Checkers: The flatter the better. We’re looking at you, Loudon, Martinsville, Phoenix and Pocono.
Pretty Solid Pick: After years of near-misses, he finally conquered Bristol.
Good Sleeper Pick: Not the type of driver you’d place in the sleeper category, but since he has totaled six top 10s in 14 road starts (not horrible) yet has zero wins, that’s your answer.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not many places consistently, although a case could be made for Daytona. He’s recorded at least one top 10 at every track on the Cup circuit.
Insider Tip: Expounding on that, it’s not the individual races that trip up Hamlin and crew; it’s the big moments. This bunch can throw gaudy stats on the board.
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