Denny Hamlin likes to joke about not being a good student and graduating last in his high school class in the Richmond, Va., suburb of Chesterfield. So chances are good that, as a kid, Hamlin didn't read much Ralph Waldo Emerson and is thus unaware of one of Emerson's fundamental admonitions: “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
Hamlin had the perfect opportunity to strike at NASCAR's king, Jimmie Johnson, at the end of 2010, and when he failed, it triggered a series of dire consequences for Hamlin and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team this season. As much as Hamlin likes to portray himself as an urbane sophisticate who hangs with Michael Jordan and owns a hip, New York-style Charlotte club called Butter, underneath it all, Hamlin has a fairly fragile psyche.
Flash back to 2010: Hamlin won the eighth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Texas, while Jimmie Johnson's crew melted down completely and was replaced en masse, mid-race, with the crew from Jeff Gordon's car. Hamlin's dominant victory gave him a lead of 33 points [old points format] over Johnson with two races to go, and the JGR gang did a fair amount of woofing afterward.
“Knowing that you put the two pit crews toe to toe and those guys are going to make mistakes…,” Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, said of Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports crew. “Those guys faltered. It made them panic and push to the point where they made changes.”
A week later in Phoenix, Hamlin appeared ready to kill the king once and for all. Hamlin led 190 of the first 265 laps of the Kobalt Tools 500, while Johnson struggled to stay in contention just outside the top 10. But Hamlin had to make one more fuel stop then the other race leaders and when the checkered flag fell, Johnson was fifth and Hamlin 12th. Instead of putting the final nail in Johnson's championship hopes, that extra fuel stop let Johnson back in the race.
Afterward, Hamlin was visibly stricken and refused even to enter the media center while Johnson was doing his post-race interview. Hamlin looked like he saw a ghost. Then, at the title contenders' press conference in Miami the following weekend, Hamlin was schooled by what Johnson likes to joke are “Jedi mind tricks.”
“We have nothing to lose. This guy does,” Johnson said, pointing to Hamlin. “It's a much different perspective for us. I've been here in the past with even a big points lead and have been concerned about dropping the ball. When you're defending, your mind starts to change and you start to think about the ‘what ifs.' When you're chasing, it's more about, ‘What do I need to do?' It's been a much more relaxed week for me.”
Johnson's ribbing of Hamlin was not lost on Kevin Harvick, the third-place man in points. “I knew sitting on the stage last year that the No. 11 [Hamlin] wasn't going to win the championship because he could hardly sit still and was so nervous going into that race that he could hardly stand it,” said Harvick. “Jimmie was gouging at it. I just sat back and watched.”
Sure enough, Hamlin qualified poorly at that Homestead finale, made contact with Greg Biffle on lap 24 of the 267-lap race and ended up in 14th, while Johnson was the runner-up to Carl Edwards and took his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship by 39 points over Hamlin.
It wasn't exactly a choke, but it was close.
“It's tough, because when you find yourself in that position for the first time, it's hard not to be consumed by that one race, when in actuality it's only 10 percent of the entire result of the Chase,” said Hamlin.
Unfortunately for Hamlin, the late-season adversity of 2010 didn't make he and his team stronger this year. Instead it appeared to eat at his confidence and wound up undermining his season. After winning eight races and scoring 14 top-five finishes in 2010, Hamlin had just one victory and five top fives in 2011.