The 2010 season was supposed to be the season of Denny Hamlin and in a way it was. Just not how he had imagined or as others would have preferred to talk or write about after 10 months, 22 tracks and 36 Sprint Cup Series races. Supposed to be, until one moment in time got in the way.
[media-credit name=”Dan Sanger” align=”alignright” width=”243″][/media-credit]Instead of winning his first career championship and ending the stranglehold that Jimmie Johnson had on the top spot, Hamlin walked away empty handed. He had won a series high eight races and was leading the points heading into the season finale in Homestead-Miami before Johnson and his 48 team did what they’ve done best the last few years.
Now with the 2011 Chase underway Hamlin’s in a much different position. He’s far from being the favorite but while not mathematically eliminated, he might be realistically. After a rough weekend in Chicago he’s 12th in the standings and behind the leaders by nearly a whole race, 41 points. The No. 11 team has encountered every type of trouble possible this season and has only found victory lane once.
Friday at New Hampshire, sight of the second Chase race, Hamlin was asked about losing the championship last year. The question, related to fuel mileage, which has decided a fair share of races this year, also had another twist to it. One of those, what would have been had fuel mileage not been a factor?
“That’s what was the ultimate dagger for us for the championship” Hamlin said. “We dominated the entire race and we didn’t have good fuel mileage and we had to pit when everyone else didn’t and obviously we went from – I think at the time if I finish in the top five, I’m 80 to 100 points to the good going into the last race.”
For Hamlin it’ll always leave a lasting question in his mind about the championship. Racing is no different than any other sport or even life; moments of what could have, should have or even would have been are never far.
If a caution would have fallen at a different time or a different strategy decision was made, what if that chassis sitting back at the shop had been used instead? There are thoughts of what Tim Richmond, Adam Petty or even Dale Earnhardt could have or would have been. Just one moment in time changes the future’s path.
Last November one decision from crew chief Mike Ford, one race, one pit stop forever altered Hamlin’s season.
He finished 12th at Phoenix after leading a race high 190 laps and saw his point lead decrease to 15 over Johnson. Whereas Hamlin ran top three all afternoon, Johnson struggled all day, never led a lap but wound up fifth after the fuel mileage bug bit those in front of him. In the end, Hamlin wouldn’t get to have the race in Homestead that he was looking for.
“I just start my engine and run around at Homestead like Jimmie did the last four years and we take home the championship,” said Hamlin. “It’s a completely different mindset. Obviously with momentum we see how that momentum went to the final race and worked against us. Fuel mileage has completely changed this sport over the last few years.”
Hamlin’s luck has also changed. He went from being the driver to watch on any given weekend at any given track to hardly on the map. His tough luck shows how fickle this sport can be. Johnson is the lone exception of the ever-changing nature of the Cup Series.
Drivers come and go; those on top are knocked down. The Virginia native has been knocked down already in this year’s championship fight and plenty throughout the season. Yet, he’s perfectly fine with that. Hamlin knows that’s the way the pendulum swings and his team will work hard to get back to where they feel they belong.
“In sports, staying at the top is very, very difficult,” said Hamlin. “It’s extremely hard. You see professional teams in sports where you have 10 to 12 people out on the field. One person gets hurt and it completely changes the dynamic of the entire team and all of a sudden they look terrible, the same team that was going for a championship last year.”
In NASCAR, no better example as shown week in and week out by the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 FedEx team. And according to Hamlin, this year NASCAR is showing how much of a team sport it really is.
“That’s a good thing,” he said. “I like that, but you’re going to live and die by the sword. Those days where you have problems, you’ve got to just suck it up and figure out what you’ve got to do to get better at your job and not worry about the variables that you can’t handle, you can’t change and I feel like I need to do that at this point.”