After taking home four trophies in 2012, the biggest trophy of all -- the Sprint Cup -- awaits Hamlin.
Everything seems to be going great for Denny Hamlin this season.
He's the series leader in wins with four, he's showing a newfound confidence not previously seen and—perhaps most importantly—he enters this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup as the No. 1 seed.
Everyone remembers—something Hamlin would just as soon forget—his spectacular meltdown in the waning races of the 2010 season, when he saw the championship slip through his hands.
But with a new attitude and new crew chief in Darian Grubb, Hamlin has proven he's back and perhaps better than he's ever been in 2012.
Now the question is whether he'll be able to continue that and carry it through the upcoming 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, which begins this Sunday in Chicago.
Here's how we see Hamlin's chances—what he needs to do and not to do—and why we consider him potentially reigning as Cup champion 10 weeks from now.
We'd also like to hear your thoughts. Is this Hamlin's year in your mind or not?
Can Darian Grubb win a second straight Sprint Cup in 2012?
Without question, the biggest key to Hamlin's success in 2012 has been new crew chief Darian Grubb. After getting embarrassingly dumped after leading Tony Stewart to the Sprint Cup championship last season, Grubb has bounced back in fine fashion with Hamlin. Admittedly, Hamlin still has some consistency issues, but Grubb has helped minimize them while also leading Hamlin to a series-leading four wins and the No. 1 seed entering the Chase.
Grubb steered Stewart to five wins in last year's Chase. Can he do the same with Hamlin? Probably not, because Stewart is a much different and more aggressive driver than Hamlin. But still with Grubb atop the pit box, Hamlin is worth at least two to three wins in the Chase (remember, he won two races in the 2010 edition of the Chase before suffering a devastating implosion in the final two races). The key is for Hamlin to get off to a good start, and Grubb will do everything he can to help his driver accomplish that.
The big key will be Sunday's Chase kickoff at Chicagoland Speedway. Even though he typically does well at most other 1.5-mile tracks, Hamlin does not have a very good record there: just two top 10s in six career starts. Much like the way Stewart won the Chase opener at Chicagoland last year and went on to win four more of the next nine races, Hamlin has to go for the jugular—meaning to settle for nothing less than a win—right from the start Sunday. And with Grubb in his ear and atop the pit box, that's a very good likelihood.
Can Hamlin win the fourth Cup title for Joe Gibbs Racing in this year's Chase?
In a strange way, it's good that Hamlin will not have teammates Kyle Busch or Joey Logano also competing in the Chase. This way, Hamlin is on his own, but at the same time has backup support from his teammates, who have nothing to really achieve in the last 10 races other than to help their buddy Denny.
Hamlin has been overshadowed at times in the last few Chases by Busch and all the pre-Chase hype about what the driver of the No. 18 Toyota was going to do in the Chase—ultimately to wind up not doing very well whatsoever.
Now, with Busch and Logano non-factors in the Chase—although don't for a minute think Busch won't attempt to pull off a few wins still, much like Tony Stewart did in 2006 when he failed to make the Chase yet still won three of the 10 Chase races—Hamlin will be carrying the JGR torch alone, which may be the best thing for him, rather than having to constantly look over his shoulder if a Chase race comes down to him and Busch.
Who's No. 1 heading into the Chase? Here's a big clue!
It took a long time, but it appears Hamlin is finally over the devastation of coming so close in the 2010 Chase, only to let the championship slip through his hands in the last two races. Instead of Hamlin earning his first-ever Chase, the 2010 crown became the fifth in a row for Jimmie Johnson.
The 2012 version of Hamlin is significantly different than the 2010 version. He's more mature, more poised, more patient and particularly more confident, having spent a number of sessions with a sports psychologist following the 2010 meltdown. And now, with no other JGR driver in the Chase this year, Hamlin is significantly more in control of his own destiny now than at any other time—and in any other previous edition of the Chase—in his career.
While previous crew chief Mike Ford (currently working with Aric Almirola) wasn't necessarily at fault for Hamlin's failure in 2010—although some of the blame could be placed upon Hamlin's crew at times for things like poor and slow pit stops—new crew chief Darian Grubb has Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota crew hitting on all cylinders as they prepare for the Chase.
In other words, it's a great time to be Denny Hamlin right now. He's peaking at the perfect time. But the question still remains: Will Hamlin be able to handle and withstand the invariable pressure in the Chase through the next 10 races better than he did in 2010? Until he proves us wrong—if he does, that is—I say, yes, he's ready to handle things in a much better fashion and is ready to win that long-awaited and overdue first Sprint Cup championship.
Oh yes, one more thing, which presents quite the irony: Hamlin's 32nd birthday just happens to fall on November 18, the date of the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. If there was ever a way to finish off the kind of season he's had thus far, and the kind he hopes to continue having in the upcoming Chase, that would most definitely be the place.
Toyota has powered Hamlin quite well thus far this season.
While old-time purists that believe the only real manufacturers in NASCAR are Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge may bristle at the possibility, but Toyota has a very real potential of becoming the first non-American manufacturer to win the Chase championship this season.
For only the second time since Toyota entered Sprint Cup racing in 2007, it will power three teams among the 12 Chase entries – a full one-fourth of the field. But unlike the 2008 playoffs, when Toyota powered then-Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, this is a whole different Toyota program and game face.
In 2008, the three Toyota and JGR drivers failed miserably in the Chase, with Stewart finishing a distant eighth (and then jumping back to Chevrolet as the new co-owner of a team in 2009), while Hamlin and Busch were non-entities, both finishing an embarrassing 11th and 12th.
This year's Chase has a decidedly different look. While there are three Toyota drivers again, only one is from JGR, that being Denny Hamlin. The other two are from Michael Waltrip Racing, which is in the Chase for the first time in its six-year existence, and not with one but two drivers (Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer).
You can expect Toyota the company to throw everything including the kitchen sink at its three Chase drivers in hopes that one of them wins the championship. The odds-on favorite right now is Hamlin, who leads the entire Sprint Cup Series with four wins and also starts as the No. 1 seed in the Chase. Not half-shabby at all.
Is it time for Denny Hamlin to become No. 1 at JGR?
Hamlin has spent almost his entire career at Joe Gibbs Racing in someone else's shadow. First, he was Tony Stewart's towel boy until 2009, but then Kyle Busch ascended to become the team leader when Stewart departed, both by the number of wins he accumulated in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Trucks Series, as well as his attitude that he's the best thing since sliced bread (no pun intended towards soon-to-be Joey "Sliced Bread" Logano, who will be leaving JGR at the end of this season and taking his talents to Penske Racing in 2013).
Hamlin came close to becoming No. 1 at JGR when he finished second in the 2010 Chase, but his devastating meltdown in the final two races messed so much with his head that he was merely a shell of himself in 2011.
JGR has enjoyed three Cup championship seasons in its existence with Bobby Labonte in 2000, Tony Stewart in 2002 and 2005. Hamlin has perhaps his best chance ever to become the fourth Cup champion in JGR history.
Lastly, Hamlin has everything on the line in 2012. He's the lone Chase entrant for JGR and he's ready to become the team's leader and overall No. 1 driver. If he doesn't elevate himself to that elite class this season, an argument can be made that Bowyer will once again be in yet another driver's shadow next season when 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth joins JGR, replacing Logano behind the wheel of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota. If Hamlin is to ever be the undisputed top dog at JGR, now is the time for him to show his bite is much more than his bark.