Will Denny Hamlin Bounce Back in 2014 and Contend for a Sprint Cup Title?

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Will Denny Hamlin Bounce Back in 2014 and Contend for a Sprint Cup Title?
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Will his dismal 2013 season serve as motivation to a great 2014 for Denny Hamlin?

As we get closer to the start of the 2014 Sprint Cup season, don't be surprised if Denny Hamlin has selective memory—if not full-blown amnesia—about what was a terrible 2013 campaign.

After all, would you want to try and remember the worst season of your Sprint Cup career, a dismal 23rd-place finish?

Hamlin came into 2013 among the top potential championship contenders after having a great 2012, with five wins, 14 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes and a sixth-place showing in the final standings.

But all those high hopes came to a crashing halt when Hamlin wrecked late in an early-season race at Fontana, Calif., suffering an L1 compression fracture in his lower back.

He valiantly tried to come back after missing just four races, when some drivers may have not been able to return until the following season. And when he did return, to his credit Hamlin did fairly well almost right from the get-go.

After finishing 34th in his comeback race at Talladega, Hamlin went on to finishes of second, fourth, 34th and eighth in his next four races.

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Even though he was still in pain, he did remarkably well. There was even speculation that Hamlin might still be able to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, even having missed so many races.

Unfortunately, the Cinderella-like comeback took a decidedly downward turn from that point, and the Virginia native was never really able to recover.

In the 21 races between the 15th race of the season (Michigan) and the 35th race (Phoenix), Hamlin racked up 15 finishes of 20th or worse.

The lone bright spot, ironically enough, came in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While much of the post-race attention was focused on Jimmie Johnson having claimed his sixth Sprint Cup championship, give Hamlin his due: He ended a forgettable season with an unforgettable win.

While it certainly didn't erase all the bad things Hamlin went through in 2013, a win in the season finale bore hope and promise of ending the year on a high note and hopefully being able to ride that wave of momentum into a great start in 2014.

But will that great start really materialize? I think it will.

In fact, I'm betting that after nearly three months of rest in the offseason, Hamlin approaches and races in the 2014 season with a decided chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove to his fans and the overall NASCAR world that he isn't just back, but that he's back with a vengeance.

Hamlin is one of the most dangerous drivers in the sport. I don't mean that in a bad way; it's to be taken as a compliment. For when Hamlin gets ticked off at himself, how his car is running or how his crew is performing, it typically seems to elevate his resolve and performance.

Hamlin is kind of in a similar position as Ryan Newman, who will also likely have a chip on his shoulder in 2014 after the way he was unceremoniously released from Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013.

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

They both have a great deal to race for—and prove.

Hamlin and Newman, in my opinion, could very well be two of the biggest dark horses to win the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 23. Newman has already won The Great American Race once.

And while his overall performance at Daytona to date has been mediocre with just two top-five finishes in 16 career starts at the 2.5-mile high-banked oval, what better way for Hamlin to prove he's back to himself, his fans, Joe Gibbs Racing and NASCAR than to conquer Daytona?

Eleven months from now, when he returns to Homestead-Miami Speedway to defend his win in the 2013 event, we may very well be talking about how memorable a season Hamlin has had as he closes in on his first career Sprint Cup championship.

Such a potential unforgettable comeback season would go a long way towards burying the forgettable prior season once and for all.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Catch Brad Gillie and myself this Sunday (Jan. 12) from noon to 3 p.m. ET on "Press Pass" on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Channel 90. Better yet, call in with your comments or questions at 1-866-PIT-LANE (866-748-5263).

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