Denny Hamlin can’t wait for NASCAR’s 2014 season to officially begin. By the time it does, he’ll have been ready for a new beginning for just shy of 11 months.
Such is life when an injury keeps a NASCAR driver out of the seat for four races, ruining all aspirations of scoring that gleaming Sprint Cup trophy.
“You’re kind of racing for nothing, really,” Hamlin conceded last November, finally done with his nightmare season. “It’s hard to find the motivation to perform at 100 percent when you’re trying to find yourself, trying to figure out what feel you need, really when you feel like you’re not racing for anything.”
Hamlin, of course, was ready to take on Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the NASCAR world in his eighth full-time Cup season. After a frustrating 2011 — the worst year of his career — he had leapt forward in 2012, snagging five wins. With veteran Matt Kenseth joining him and Kyle Busch as a teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, things seemed ready to fall into place.
Instead, disaster struck only five races in. Hard racing against new nemesis and old teammate Joey Logano wrecked both drivers in the final corner on the final lap at Auto Club Speedway late in March. Instead of holding on for his first win of 2013, Hamlin piled nose-first into an unprotected wall just before pit road. He had to be taken from the crash on a stretcher and was later diagnosed with multiple fractures in his lower back.
Hamlin missed four races, adjusting his window of making the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup to the status of “miracle needed.” Upon his return, it seemed like all systems go. He scored top-5 finishes in his first two full races back from the injury and top-10 finishes in three of the first four. Hamlin even won back-to-back poles at Charlotte and Dover, drawing comparisons to the speedy recovery from his torn ACL three years earlier.
But then, the dream fell apart. Hamlin finished 21st or worse in five straight races through July and ultimately crashed out of four of the 12 events after his return. He also blew engines three more times before the season ended — totaling eight DNFs for the year, the most he has piled together in one Cup season.
The miracle Chase bid obviously didn’t come. Instead, it forced Hamlin to pivot roles for JGR as the season headed to a close. Hamlin went from running for a championship to running for setup answers that could help his Chase-qualified teammates in their fight to secure the title.
The results — including the blown engines — were often nasty. But it left an interesting question for Hamlin to ponder in the offseason: What’s the advantage of testing for 2014 while others were at work for 2013?
The short answer is momentum, as a late-season surge kept crew chief Darian Grubb on board — after rumors of his firing — and stabilized confidence within the program. Hamlin’s back, seemingly destined for offseason surgery, also improved through a series of alternative treatments.
Hamlin might have given us a sneak peak of his true return to form in the Homestead season finale. He drove his black No. 11 to its first victory of the season during the coronation of Johnson’s sixth championship.
For Hamlin, it was no fluke. He knew right away that the team had hit on the setup. But perhaps the most telling part of Hamlin’s win was the parallel he drew afterward.
“As bad as the year is, we can take a little solace in this finish, spend these next two months regrouping, getting our team back in order,” Hamlin said. “I feel like there’s no reason why we can’t shoot out of the gates in 2014 like we did in 2010 after winning (Homestead) in 2009.”
That 2010 season, of course, was Hamlin’s eight-win campaign. He even led Johnson heading to the Chase finale before stumbling and finishing second in the championship.
While that presumption is likely a bit too much, it’s not a stretch to see Hamlin as a championship contender It’s just harder to see how he’ll overcome the strength of his teammates — a situation that could relegate him to a supporting role once again. His chronic back issues — and the problems they can cause Hamlin in setting up a car — just remain too much of a concern.
Regardless, 2014 figures to bring more success — and far less frustration — than the season Hamlin endured last year.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Hamlin is a racer,” a championship-caliber crew chief says. “He has won every year since he came into the series and it didn’t take him years to learn it like some other drivers. His first full season he was in Victory Lane. He’s run for a championship and, like they say, before you can win one you have to lose one. He’s also feeling healthier thanks to some alternative treatments for his back.”
“There are two big questions for Hamlin,” another says. “Will his back hold up or will it let him down in the middle of the year and result in more subpar performances? And will Hamlin’s head allow him run for a title? He has the talent to win a title, but his head has gotten in his way more than once. He needs to be able to shake off a bad run and take advantage of his good ones. His back was supposed to need surgery and now he’s having ‘alternative’ treatments that he thinks are working. When he goes for the long stretch in the summer without a break his back might ignore those treatments.”
“He’s a talent, no doubt, but winning a title involves more than just natural ability,” one media member says. “He’s a driver that, on paper, should be in the mix every year, but for him to actually follow through on a championship? Well, that’s been a debacle thus far.”
Looking at Checkers: Martinsville is still Hamlin’s spot, with four wins and 11 top 10s in 13 CoT/Gen-6 era races.
Pretty Solid Pick: He’s no slouch at Darlington either, with a 4.7-place average showing since the CoT was rolled out in 2007.
Good Sleeper Pick: Why don’t Hamlin’s two wins in Michigan since 2008 get as much play as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s? Juuuust kidding.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Chicagoland has never been especially kind. Maybe it has something to do with it kicking off the Chase.
Insider Tip: When Denny is “right” — healthy back, positive outlook, etc. — he has very few weak spots. In fact, he has recorded top-10 finishes at every track over the last five years alone.
No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Sponsors: FedEx/Sport Clips
Owner: Joe Gibbs
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
Years with current team: 10
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 2nd (2010)
Hometown: Chesterfield, Va.
Born: Nov. 11, 1980
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro