Although they came up just 39 and 41 points short, respectively, of winning the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, both Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick proved Jimmie Johnson was not bulletproof after all. One day, he will be beaten, as Hamlin and Harvick came close to doing in 2010.
Hamlin, the hip and vaguely preppy Chesterfield, Va., native, is about as different as different can be when compared with the old-school, acid-tongued Harvick, who grew up in Southern California's hardscrabble Inland Empire.
But individually and collectively, these two very different men found ways to force the issue with Johnson, carrying the 2010 title to the last race and setting up the closest three-way points battle since Tony Stewart held off Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards by 35 points each in 2005. Here's how they did it.
In Hamlin's case, 2010 was the year he manned up and firmly established himself as the lead driver at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he outshone the fast but erratic Kyle Busch and the still-learning Joey Logano. Hamlin has always been able to get up on the wheel, but in years past, he was prone to complaining about the reliability of his cars and the mistakes made by his crew. He overcame that this year through an act of will and courage.
In early April, Hamlin had arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Nine days later, he was back in his No. 11 FedEx-sponsored Toyota, practicing at Phoenix International Raceway for the spring race, which had lengthened for the first time from 500 kilometers to 600. The plan all along was to let Hamlin run just long enough to get to the first yellow-flag period.
Hamlin was collected in an early race spin involving Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne, and his car was suffering intermittent electrical problems as well. Collision damage on the right side of the car made it difficult to change the right-front tire, and when he lost all electrical power on pit road on lap 135, Hamlin went two laps down.
The team figured to get Hamlin out of the car and put Casey Mears behind the wheel, but Hamlin would have none of it. “I knew that if I got out of the car, I was going to hear all kinds of stuff from everyone else saying I gave up on the team,” he said afterward. “That's one thing I'm not going to do is give up on these guys. It didn't matter if I knew we weren't going to gain one more position. To be honest with you, I'd have been too embarrassed to give Casey the car.”
Whether by design or by coincidence, Hamlin's show of guts rallied the team around him.
“Here's a guy who had surgery and we're all prepared to get him out of the car because we knew it was going to be tough for him to make it,” says team owner Joe Gibbs. “He refused to get out of the car and stayed in there knowing we weren't going to have a good day. And I think that said a lot to his team and all the guys around him, and I think from that point on…well, I think that had a lot to do with our year.”
Crew chief Mike Ford agrees. “I think that was a bigger motivation for him knowing that he can overcome things bigger than what he thought he could,” says Ford. “I think for him, that was mental toughness. That was being able to achieve things at a higher level.”
Just one week later, at Texas Motor Speedway, Hamlin stunned the NASCAR world when he staged a late-race rally to win his second race of the season after qualifying all the way back in 29th.
“To me, that was the team being strong through tough times, being very focused and working at a level that we were going to refuse to give anything back through this because of the situation,” says Ford. “We were fighting for our driver, fighting to overcome what he may not be able to do. So I think, in hindsight, that whole situation between Denny proving something to himself and the race team proving that, hey, we can step up, worked out and strengthened everyone. I think it brought everyone a little bit closer together.”
From there on, Hamlin, Ford and the rest of the crew knew they were threats to win every time they rolled the No. 11 Toyota off the trailer. Hamlin would go on to win a season-high eight races and kick off the Chase for the Sprint with the No. 1 seed.
Harvick's breakout season was the result of an extreme makeover at Richard Childress Racing, which at the end of 2008 set off on a technical direction that proved to be disastrously wrongheaded. As 2009 unfolded, it was clear that the team's cars were junk, competitively speaking. Harvick and team owner Richard Childress feuded openly and many expected Harvick would leave the team when his contract expired at the end of 2010.
Midway through 2009, Childress reorganized his management team, picking Jeff Burton's crew chief, Scott Miller, to head the team's competition operations and making myriad other personnel changes. The team then set about the daunting task of totally replacing a fleet of about 60 cars.
Harvick's first big event of 2010 was his dramatic last-lap pass of Jamie McMurray to score a victory at Talladega Superspeedway in April, which broke a 115-race winless streak dating back to the 2007 Daytona 500.
But the defining moment of his season came when he won the Aug. 15 Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, historically one of Harvick's worst tracks and a place where RCR hadn't won in 20 years, since the late Dale Earnhardt.
Harvick's victory at Michigan was proof positive that the team could win anywhere, not just on the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. And it meant they could win on their weak tracks, too.
Said Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin: “To come to Michigan, be able to run the way we did today, after the way we've run here the past three years, this shows how far the organization has come as a whole, not to mention the fact that Kevin did a great job today running the high line all day long. It takes a lot to do that here, to make that happen. I can't say enough about the whole organization.”
Michigan was the definitive statement that RCR was indeed back to championship form.
“When you look at the statistics, you look at the situations, all the things that you take from a year ago, it's hard to believe,” said Harvick. “But it's from a lot of effort and from a lot of people doing their jobs, making changes on Richard's part, me trying to do things differently. It's a huge, huge, huge undertaking. For me, as an owner of a race team [Kevin Harvick Inc. runs a Nationwide car and two Camping World trucks], I understand that. So it's hard to fathom how big that turnaround has been.”
But it was consistency that paid the biggest dividend for Harvick, just as it did when Earnhardt was winning races for RCR in the 1980s and '90s. Harvick scored a series-high 26 top-10 finishes – no one else scored more than 23 – and his 16 top-five finishes were just one shy of Johnson's series-best total. Interestingly, Harvick's average Chase finish of 5.8 was better than both Johnson's 6.2 and Hamlin's 7.2.
Without question, then, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick both had stellar 2010 seasons. So how come Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive championship?
In Hamlin's case, he entered the Chase with a 10-point lead over Johnson and a faster car. But in seven of the 10 Chase races, Johnson finished ahead of Hamlin, including the final two. At Phoenix, Hamlin had the fastest car and led the most laps, but had to make an extra stop for fuel, which cost him the race. And, at Homestead, he made a critical error, bouncing off Greg Biffle
on lap 24, a lapse in judgment that damaged his car just enough so that he never fully recovered.
For Harvick, it's that he started the Chase 30 points behind Hamlin and 20 back of Johnson, because he won three regular-season races vs. six for Hamlin and five for Johnson. In the Chase itself, Harvick earned more points than Hamlin and just 21 fewer than Johnson.
In the end, there will be many discussions about why things ended the way they did and a litany of woulda/coulda/shoulda excuses. So it may simply boil down to this: Although Hamlin and Harvick had the best seasons of their careers in 2010, they were facing Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team in their prime. And right now, Johnson and his team are on track to be the best ever.
The No. 48 as a Template for Glory
Rick Hendrick has shuffled his crew chiefs for 2011
The conventional wisdom is that Jimmie Johnson's record-shattering fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup will be bad for business – namely TV ratings and butts in seats at racetracks, because the same guy keeps winning over and over again.
But what happened less than 48 hours after Johnson clinched may dramatically reverse the negatives. Johnson's team owner Rick Hendrick, frustrated with disappointing performances from his other three cars, on Nov. 23 radically shifted his team's driver/crew chief alignment.
Jeff Gordon, who had been paired with Johnson in the Nos.24/48 shop, or in Hendrick parlance, the 248 shop, was moved over to the team's other facility, which in 2009-'10 housed Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Next year, the newly renamed 48/88 shop will house Johnson and Earnhardt, who will be paired with Gordon's former crew chief Steve Letarte and drive the same cars Johnson drives. In fact, Earnhardt's over-the-wall pit crew will be the same guys who serviced Johnson's car for the final two-and-a-half races of the 2010 season.
Gordon, meanwhile, will move into the 5/24 shop, and have his team led by the brilliant young Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief for the past two seasons. Martin, going into his final year with Hendrick, gets Lance McGrew as crew chief and gets his former race engineer, Chris Heroy back.
Team owner Rick Hendrick's stated goal is to improve all four teams. But the 48 team already is a championship squad, and the team with the most upside is Earnhardt's. If these moves make Earnhardt a consistent top-10 driver again, that will do much more to move the needle on NASCAR's popularity than whoever the champion is. Unless, of course, Earnhardt somehow defies odds and expectations and wins a title himself in 2011. If the planets align perfectly and that improbable event happens, look for tracks to start adding seats again in 2012 after a couple of years of hard downsizing.
Regardless, for now, the Earnhardt Nation has a winter of optimism ahead. And that can only be good for business.