NASCAR: Hamlin needs his swagger back

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 22, 2011

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
CHARLOTTE — After yet another bad day at work, Denny Hamlin received a pick-me-up via text message from one of his newest friends.
“Tough day my friend,” began the text from Michael Jordan. “Still in this thing. Stay positive!!!”
Hamlin was clearly impressed by the words, evidenced by him posting a picture of the text on his Twitter page a mere four minutes after the NBA Hall of Famer hit the send button. Problem is, Hamlin has enjoyed the rich-and-famous lifestyle he earned, but has lost his swagger during this sinking season.
Hamlin looks nothing like the driver who nearly dethroned Jimmie Johnson last season, and if things don’t turn around in the next three weeks, he may not even have a shot at competing for the NASCAR championship this season. His 35th-place finish Sunday at Michigan, where he won his only race of 2011 back in June, dropped Hamlin two spots in the Sprint Cup Series standings to 14th.
If the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship began tomorrow, he’d still get a berth in the 12-driver field by virtue of the new wild card system. But that could easily change if Hamlin doesn’t put a string of solid finishes together beginning Saturday night at Bristol.
Maybe he does pull it together and sneak into the Chase. And then what? He certainly doesn’t look like a legitimate title contender, with a whopping one top-10 finish in the eight races since his Michigan victory.
Even worse, he absolutely did not sound like a title contender on Sunday.
Emerging from a 45-minute post-race meeting with frustrated crew chief Mike Ford, Hamlin told reporters there’s a potential upside to him and his Joe Gibbs Racing team sitting out this year’s title race.
“Who knows? Maybe missing the Chase would be the best thing for us for next year,” Hamlin said. “We could spend 10 weeks just screwing around and thinking of different and new ways to make our cars better and not have to points race for 10 weeks.”
It’s highly unlikely that anyone from JGR, sponsor FedEx or manufacturer Toyota shares that sentiment with Hamlin. Chances are, they can’t even believe he suggested such a thing.
This isn’t the same Denny Hamlin who, following his breakthrough victory at home track Richmond in 2009, developed an overnight swagger that helped him flip a switch and finally start realizing his potential. Solid since his 2005 debut, he made the Chase in 2006 as a rookie and held onto a spot in the championship field every year since.
But come Chase time, he fizzled and never really contended for the title. Although he finished third in the final standings that rookie season, he didn’t run at the same pace as the legitimate championship contenders and he couldn’t figure out how to win more than one or two races a year.
That changed, though, with that win at Richmond. His confidence now soaring, Hamlin won three of the final 11 races of 2009 and made it clear he was coming for Johnson the next season. How did he do that? He announced it, of course, over a microphone at a party he threw following the awards ceremony at which Johnson collected his fourth Cup.
Don’t doubt for a minute, though, that Hamlin didn’t live up to his promise. He delivered despite a bevy of distractions that ranged from early-season surgery on a torn knee ligament to a downtown Charlotte nightclub that caters to the beautiful people Hamlin has been steadily adding to his phone book.
Hamlin racked up eight wins and took Johnson all the way down to the wire, losing the title over the final two weeks because of one team miscalculation and one driver error. Up 15 points headed into the finale, he fell 39 points short of taking that title from Johnson.
And he’s not been the same since.
Life’s still been great off the race track for Hamlin, who shot a cameo in the series finale of “Entourage” and has enjoyed all the trappings of his celebrity status.
But on track he has been nothing short of a major letdown. He’s suffered through all of JGR’s engine woes, weathered false reports that he and Ford — the only crew chief he’s had at the Cup level — were splitting, and he’s got just seven top-10 finishes through 23 races.
JGR’s pesky quality control issues share a portion of the blame for Hamlin’s season, and bad luck played its part, including his vicious accident two weeks ago at Watkins Glen when his brakes failed. But teammate Kyle Busch hasn’t had the same struggles. Busch got his series-best fourth win of the season Sunday and is currently leading the Cup standings.
Hamlin can’t place all the blame on JGR, though. He’s got to take some responsibility for his performance, and did on Sunday when he admitted he hit the wall because he was pushing too hard.
“When things don’t go right, it’s hard not to press the panic button,” Hamlin said. “I think I’ve done a good job of not doing that through the course of my career. The last five weeks, I can’t necessarily say that’s the case.
“I was trying to push. I’m not going to settle for finishing 15th or 20th every week. I want to go out there and I want to win, and I’m going to push as hard as I can do that. If I step over the edge — that’s what I did (Sunday) — I don’t think I do it that often, but it happens.”
It can’t happen anymore. Hamlin and his team are too good to be in this position, and if he could get his swagger back, he could get right back into this race. But he’s got just three races to do it, and fortunately for Hamlin, his track record is strong at all three tracks. Up first is Bristol, where he has five career top-10s, and then Atlanta, where he doesn’t have the finishes to support how strong he’s run.
Then comes Richmond, which just like 2009 could be the place where he turns it all around. No doubt about it, Hamlin wants to turn it around and wants to be at the top of his profession. All that other stuff in his life is just extracurricular activities right now. There will always be time for golf outings with Bubba Watson, but the window to win championships is narrow.
He’s not in danger of having it slammed shut on him right now. But he’s got to do something — anything — to get back to that magical place he was after Richmond two years ago when it became clear that Denny Hamlin was on the verge of stardom for driving race cars pretty darn well.
The Associated Press
08/22/11 18:11