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.
There have been a variety of reasons for Hamlin's struggles this past year: The JGR engine program, normally bulletproof, has been an unmitigated disaster, with at least 15 engine failures in the three JGR Toyotas in one season. Six of those resulted in DNFs, the other nine coming in practice and qualifying, costing precious track time. In the season's penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway, Kyle Busch even lost one engine at idle before heading out to practice – and another one in the race.
So bad have the problems been that JGR will abandon building its own engines and get factory engines from TRD, USA next season. Hamlin started using the TRD engines in the Chase, a move that necessitated rebuilding the front ends of his cars because the JGR and TRD engines attach differently to the front ends of the cars. Toyota officials have been lobbying NASCAR for a new engine, something that so far the sanctioning body has denied them.
Within the walls of JGR, the 2011 Cup campaign saw more drama and trauma than in a whole season of MTV's Jersey Shore. The team spent much of the summer courting Carl Edwards for a fourth car, but Edwards ended up staying with Roush Fenway Racing. JGR was caught with bogus, unusually heavy oil pans at Michigan in the summer, and Kyle Busch was a one-man wrecking crew, figuratively and literally.
The Shrub wrecked Kevin Harvick's stopped car on pit road at Darlington, got busted for doing 128mph in a 45mph zone on a public road north of Charlotte and then was parked for the entire Texas weekend by NASCAR after deliberately running Ron Hornaday headfirst into the wall during the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race – under yellow. Team owner Joe Gibbs is still wrestling with sponsor fallout over that one.
From a technical perspective, No. 11 crew chief Mike Ford says Hamlin hasn't adapted well to the latest generation of grippier, but longer-wearing Goodyear tires. Hamlin, meanwhile, doesn't like his cars.
“Well, a lot of the things that I feel like we need to work on are based on the way we build our cars,” Hamlin said just before this year's final race. “That's going to take a long time to fix. I'm not going to expect things to happen this week or next week. I'm not going to get discouraged if I go to Homestead and they say, ‘This is half of what you want,' or ‘This is three-quarters of what you want.' Because I know when we get to Daytona or the next mile-and-a-half track next year, we're going to have what I want in the cars – and hopefully it's going to be the thing we need.”
In fairness to Hamlin and his team, slumping the year after nearly winning it all is not exactly a unique problem to JGR. After nearly beating Johnson in 2009, Mark Martin failed to make the Chase last year. Edwards won nine races in finishing second to Johnson in 2008, then went 70 races without a victory. And once a team gets off track, turning things around midseason takes time, because the races are virtually every weekend.
“I feel like there's some stuff within our cars and other stuff that we need to work on, but we're not going to get to that until next year,” Hamlin says. “When drivers want to change the cars, it takes a long process to develop cars that way. But I do feel like we've got good things in the works. As long as everyone at the shop is going to be open-minded to a bunch of radical changes, I think that we have the potential to head in the right direction.”
One of the biggest obstacles this season, though, was surely Hamlin's own attitude, especially in light of last year's near miss, which destroyed his self-confidence. Determined to get some of it back, Hamlin has been working with sports psychologist Robert Rotella, best known for his work with professional golfers, most notably 2011 British Open winner Darren Clarke. It was coach Gibbs who got Hamlin and Rotella together.
Then again, it might simply be – as NASCAR veterans like to say – “one of them racin' deals,” a blip, an anomaly, a season where everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
“Honestly, I've never had a year like this year, not even at local short track level!” Hamlin says. “I've always won races, always competed for a championship just about every year that I've been in any division, so no, I've never gone through a year like this before. Hopefully, it's a character-builder for myself and the race team to kind of get back to realizing how tough this business is. We know what we're capable of and, hopefully, this is just a year where we kind of reset and go on to next season and get back to our form of 2010.”
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