Denny Hamlin, race car driver. A man barely cracking the top-20. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to rebuild a race car driver’s ACL and get him back on the track in Chase contender form. Denny Hamlin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger faster.
When the 2010 NASCAR season kicked into gear, speculation and conspiracy theories ran rampant that this would be the year that we saw Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet win his fifth consecutive championship title.
With an unheard of 35th place finish in Daytona for the No. 48 team, we secretly breathed a sigh of relief that maybe; just maybe, we’d see someone dethrone the Johnson Empire.
Not so fast.
Johnson quickly proved that Daytona was just a fluke by winning three of the next four races.
Sigh, here we go again.
Quietly waiting in the wings was the walking wounded, Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota, ready but unable to make his move.
Hamlin had torn his left ACL on Jan. 22 playing basketball, leaving the driver and his fans unsure of how his injury would affect his performance on the track.
Knowing that this type of injury was one that doctors recommended an immediate surgical intervention, Hamlin opted to wait until the off-season, but with lack-luster results in the first five races, Hamlin’s injured knee proved too problematic and the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota made the decision to have it operated on and during the Sprint Cup’s long Easter bye-week.
Was this to be a new start or would it be the end of any hopes to make the Chase?
Post-surgical time would tell, but Hamlin proved to the world that he wasn’t going down without a fight by winning a rain delayed race in Martinsville that had been postponed until Monday, Mar. 29, the same day that his procedure was scheduled to take place.
Hamlin got behind the wheel for the first time after his surgery in Phoenix on Apr.10. Despite being in pain and having Casey Mears standing by as his relief driver, he opted not to use him, work through his torment and finish the race in the 30th position.
Prior to his surgery, Hamlin stated, “Trust me, when I come back, I’m going to come back strong.”
OK then, prove it!
Hamlin did just that by winning the very next week in Texas and four more times during the regular season. When the Chase started on Sep. 19, Hamlin sat pretty in the no. one position, 33 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson.
We fans know that in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, anything can and will happen.
The No. 11 team maintained a comfortable lead until Kansas and just like that, with seven races left in the Chase, Johnson and his team took the lead by just eight points.
Johnson’s lead grew to 36 points over Hamlin in Fontana; then to 41 in Charlotte, The man dubbed “Superman” was making his triumphant return.
Hamlin’s fight returned once again in Martinsville, where the Virginia native proved that one victory at that track just wasn’t enough. He closed the gap between he and Johnson, trailing the former champ by six measly points.
Talladega gave Johnson a seventh place finish and Hamlin a ninth, increasing Johnson’s lead to 14 points.
Heading into Texas, some would say that even though Johnson’s lead was just 14 points, it was a lead none-the-less. Chad Knaus would do anything in his power to ensure that his driver would stay ahead of the rest of the pack.
He demonstrated that “anything goes” mentality by dismissing his No. 48 over-the-wall crew after a series of horrific pit stops, replacing them with Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 crew; but it was a little too little too late, the damage had already been done. Johnson’s loss in track position during the race snatched away his lead, replacing it with a 33-point deficit with just two crucial races to go.
Hamlin started the Chase 33 points ahead of Johnson and has come full circle to maintain that lead once again.
Who will cross the finish line the victor in Homestead? Unlike years past, thankfully we won’t know until the nail-biting, bitter end.
While Hamlin and Johnson are swapping headlines week after week, don’t count out Kevin Harvick, who lies in wait a mere 59 points back. One thing is guaranteed, it’s going to be one hell of a three-ring circus and undoubtedly the most exciting Chase for the Sprint Cup since it’s introduction in 2004.
So, in the end was Hamlin’s surgery the fix he needed to put him on top? Indeed it was; with a series-best total of eight victories this season and estimated winnings of $5,432,645 so far, after the next two races Hamlin could easily emerge the 2010 Sprint Cup champion and NASCAR’s six million dollar man.