[media-credit id=22 align=”alignright” width=”193″][/media-credit]No matter how hot a team is when they enter the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the deadly combination of mistakes and bad breaks – mostly beating themselves – will instantly take a team out of championship contention.
Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team have come to learn that lesson the hard way the last few seasons. Two of the last three years Hamlin was the point leader when the Chase started, courtesy of his early wins and a hot hand at the end of the regular season. But when the playoffs started and it came down to the most important 10 races of the season, things quickly went downhill.
Running out of gas in Chicago, a win in New Hampshire, then having to pit for fuel in Dover, seemingly ended Hamlin’s championship run before the Chase was halfway. He finished sixth in points when checkered flag flew in Homestead, a long way away from Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, whom he was expected to be battling with.
“Our issues that we’ve had is really what has kind of bit me throughout my career is the reliability side of things,” said Hamlin in Las Vegas for the season ending awards banquet. “We’ve just struggled at Gibbs to have a trouble free Chase in the sense of no mechanical, no engine failures and things of that sort. I feel like TRD [Toyota Racing Development] and Toyota has made huge strides on the engine side of things, but it’s still up to us to improve on the car side of things.”
At Martinsville, the seventh Chase race, Hamlin gave it one more valiant effort to climb back into contention. Fighting from the back of the field twice and leading laps only to have his Toyota shut off on the frontstretch. The master control switch had a short and it ended his day and title hopes, although he had a car fast enough to win the race. Something, he says, JGR has always done right.
“I think we have extremely fast race cars that can win every single week we hit the racetrack, but it’s about making sure that we don’t beat ourselves both in the race shop and at the racetrack,” he said. “These championships are won – it’s almost the last man standing in the sense of you can’t have a bad race or it will knock you out.”
Looking past Hamlin’s continued Chase struggles, his 2012 season was a success in many other ways. He again qualified for the Chase, something he’s done every year he’s been in the NSCS. And, he won five times, including the Bristol night race in August. Not bad for the first season under the guidance of new crew chief Darian Grubb.
“I think he did as good as he could possibly do. He won me a couple races with strategy. He won us races by building us really fast cars,” Hamlin said of Grubb. “I think it took a little time for our communications to get going. Even though we run off a couple wins in our first eight races, our communication still wasn’t where it is now by any means.
“I think next year having that jump start of already working with a guy for a year, hopefully it translates to success early in the season.”
Much will change for Hamlin in 2013, a season he’s looking forward to. Matt Kenseth will become a JGR teammate and every NSCS driver will be racing the new “G6” cars. Drivers and teams who get off to a good start in figuring out the new cars will be in good shape to make the Chase, Hamlin believes. He and his team are already thinking about the what lays ahead and what they’ll need to do in order to again put themselves in position for a championship.
So, while Hamlin’s pleased with his 2012 season – it was certainly much better than last season when he endured the runner-up curse – the New Year will be bigger and better for many reasons. He and girlfriend Jordan Fish are about to be parents for the first time in January, which he’ll spend his offseason preparing for. Then, Hamlin and his two favorite girls will go about trying to find that perfect Chase and championship season.
“It was a good bounce back year for us. We didn’t get to Victory Lane much in 2011 and we kind of got back to the winning ways in 2012,” said Hamlin.
“Ultimately, you want to lift the big trophy but it’s very gratifying to get the race wins because it shows that you have speed. You have what it takes to be a champion and you’ve just got to put it all together the last 10 races.”