2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 11 FedEx Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Mike Ford
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (2010)
Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.
Born: November 11, 1980
Sometimes, stats can be deceiving when assessing a driver’s mental state of mind. After a season when your win total equaled the number you had in the previous five years combined, finishing a career-best second in the standings, how would you remember it? On paper, it seems like a reason to throw a party all the way through that speech at the banquet in Las Vegas.
But for Denny Hamlin, he spent that night looking longingly at the head table, shaking his head while lamenting a championship that slipped away. It’s the type of disappointing second-place Chase result that sticks with you, attributable to poor fuel mileage, nerves and poorly timed trash talk. Following his eighth win of the season at Texas, Hamlin took the point lead with just two races left but saw a decision to pit for gas a week later come back to bite him, dropping from second to a 12th-place finish at Phoenix while Jimmie Johnson wound up fifth without stopping. Then, a dismal qualifying effort put him behind the eight ball from the get-go at Homestead, as a week’s worth of verbal pressure in the media from rivals Johnson and Kevin Harvick eventually took their toll.
“I’ll be honest with you, I was not nervous at any point until about an hour before the race,” he said afterwards. “That’s really when it hit me.”
Ninety minutes later, he was spinning off of Greg Biffle’s No. 16 car, and his Chase bid was sinking in the Florida swamp. He left Homestead without the big trophy but armed with plenty of questions about whether or not this team could mount another run at the title in 2011 after wiping out a season’s worth of smiles in one fell swoop. Despite a comeback driver of the year performance, when he recovered from ACL surgery in late March to establish numbers that set the standard at Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin’s development from occasional contender to weekly threat to reach Victory Lane means little if momentum has truly died on the vine.
That’s where the last in a trio of poorly timed missteps threatens Hamlin the most for 2011. Crew chief Mike Ford took some swipes at the Chad Knaus-led No. 48 team after Hamlin’s Texas win, knocking a decision from afar on how Hendrick Motorsports swapped pit crews mid-race. Team members at HMS publicly and privately claimed that the comments led to internal motivation, a waking-the-sleeping-giant moment that helped beat back the challenge of the No. 11 for good. Combine that with some ugly quotes from the driver after Phoenix — “I can save fuel pretty well, I did my job” — and his relationship with Ford could become an intriguing subplot this spring. The men aren’t friends off the track, lacking the type of deep bond that typically keeps the Johnson/Knaus type of relationship rolling through thick and thin, and Hamlin knows how much those poor decisions killed their title effort.
Another reason that a repeat run is unlikely is the emotional toll the Chase took on Hamlin himself. Still young, entering only his sixth full-time series of Cup competition, he may not have the experience and maturity to bounce back after such a cruel letdown. Long known for being a driver who thinks with his heart, Hamlin had learned to use his head until the fuel mileage folly seemed to throw his confidence for a loop.
“I have to leave Phoenix in Phoenix,” Hamlin said then, although he later admitted he had not. “That’s the thing is you can’t let this … I couldn’t control it. Things didn’t work out for me. I felt like we’ve been the best car over this Chase, and we might not win it.”
That they didn’t says a lot about the 30-year-old’s psyche, a second-place hangover likely to continue, a la Carl Edwards, who had a similar season (nine wins, runner-up points finish in ’08) turn into a winless disaster in ’09. And notice that Hamlin says things “didn’t work out for me.” Not the team, but “me.” Winning in the Sprint Cup Series takes a team effort. No driver, no matter how talented, can do it alone. That’s why 2011 is setting up as a likely down year for the No. 11 team, one in which they’ll need to mature and grow together again before making another serious title run.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
How did Hamlin fall short in the 2010 Chase? “I think (crew chief) Mike Ford did exactly what Chad Knaus did in 2005, the year before Jimmie Johnson’s streak started,” says one rival crew chief. “They were putting their best stuff back and saving it for the Chase all the way back to the spring. I think Ford studied Knaus and tried to peak for the Chase just like Johnson does every year. Hamlin just couldn’t execute the plan as well as Johnson, that’s all.”
Another crew chief adds, “That’s OK, though. They’ll be better prepared the next time around. Hamlin’s just coming into his own. He’s going to get better. Johnson probably isn’t. How could he?”
“I don’t know whether or not Hamlin won over everybody else, but he certainly proved himself to me,” says a team owner. “He showed a lot of guts driving while he was hurt, recovering from knee surgery, and the fact that he didn’t quite win the championship? As far as I’m concerned, he just lost a coin flip. It could’ve gone either way.”
Looking at Checkers: Martinsville and Pocono. Book ’em.
Pretty Solid Pick: The Virginia Ham-lin always steps it up at home in Richmond.
Good Sleeper Pick: Hard to consider Hamlin a sleeper anywhere these days.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Has not been a huge threat on the plate tracks, but you know how that can change when the right guy sticks to your bumper.
Insider Tip: He’s recorded a top-5 finish at every track on the circuit in his short career. That should tell you something.
Top 5s: 14
Top 10s: 18
Laps Led: 1,184
Laps Completed: 10,530
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 125
Races Led: 20
Average Start: 17.2
Average Finish: 12.9
After First 26 Races: 1st
Final Points Standing: 2nd
Driver Rating: 96.2 (5th)