While Denny Hamlin did not win the Daytona 500 this past Sunday, he still came out of Speedweeks a winner in every sense of the word.
Dating from last year's win in the season-ending race at Homestead Miami Speedway, Hamlin has been on a tear. When he came to Daytona, he was still riding the crest of momentum and motivation he received for his victory at Homestead.
And once he got going at Speedweeks, Hamlin had as close to a near-perfect record as you can get: He won the Sprint Unlimited, followed that up by winning one of the two Budweiser Duel 150s (Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth won the other), and capped things off by finishing runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Sunday's rain-delayed Great American Race.
Can Hamlin's strong run continue going forward?
All the way to the championship?
Without a doubt.
In a garage full of drivers who hate to lose, Hamlin ranks as one of those who hates to lose the most. It becomes almost an obsession to him to reach the finish line first.
He also loves to bounce back from adversity. When he suffered a serious back injury in a crash early last season that knocked him out for four weeks and an equal number of races, he could have taken the easy way out and remained on the sidelines.
A lot of other drivers likely would have said they were in too much pain or wanted to wait until they were completely healed.
But not Hamlin.
The tough Virginia native came back, albeit in pain, and played out the rest of the season.
Admittedly, his overall performance was mediocre at best, but his back and the lingering pain proved to be more than a legitimate reason and excuse for his shortcomings.
So while he tried to bounce back from adversity, he could come back only so far.
That's not the case in 2014. Hamlin is healthy and once again continuing to overcome last season's hardship and suffering.
The only difference between the end of the 2013 season and the start of 2014 is that Hamlin is finally back in the right place, where he needs to be.
He's healthy, motivated and ready to kick some significant butt.
Rather than dwell on the past, he's refocused, re-energized and is using last season's hardship as a rallying cry and inspiration for both himself and the rest of his No. 11 FedEx-sponsored Toyota team.
From Hamlin to crew chief Darian Grubb, on down to the guy who sweeps out the shop, this is a year where the key word for the team is "winning." I'm not talking Charlie Sheen-style winning, but "dig deep for every last ounce of talent and emerge victorious" kind of winning.
Grubb also knows about adversity and winning. He was in a similar position in 2011, not because of injury, but due to how he became a victim of the ugly "it's not personal, it's just business" mantra occasionally uttered in the NASCAR world.
After leading Tony Stewart to five wins in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2011, capped off with Stewart winning his third Cup championship (and first with Grubb atop the pit box), Grubb was fired.
When Stewart and Grubb celebrated the championship in victory lane, it was a surreal setting knowing that the following day, the newest championship-winning crew chief at the time was going to be without a job.
To his credit, Grubb was a pro's pro and ultimately landed on his feet with JGR, a team that recognized and valued his ability. After all, it's not just any crew chief who can lead a driver from being winless in the first 26 races of the season to then come back to win five of the next 10 most important races of the year in the Chase.
Grubb did just that. And that's what Hamlin wants to tap into in 2014.
Although not due to business, he still has a lot to overcome and prove to people that he hasn't lost anything as a driver, much like Grubb has proven he's lost nothing as a crew chief since his days at Stewart-Haas Racing.
Together, Hamlin and Grubb could form the most potent driver-crew chief combination in 2014.
Even though it was just one race, they finished off in fine fashion in 2013 and have started off in equally fine fashion in the new season.
Hamlin has come close to winning a championship several times in his first eight seasons as a full-time driver on the Sprint Cup circuit.
He wound up third in 2006, fifth in 2009, sixth in 2012. And let's not forget 2010, when he finished second. Had it not been for a bad race at Phoenix in the lead-in to the season finale the following week at Homestead, he may have been the Sprint Cup champion that year, rather than Jimmie Johnson earning his fifth consecutive Cup title.
It's safe to say that Hamlin has grown tired of the frustrations he's faced, from coming up short of the championship several seasons to last year's back injury.
If there were ever a season that Hamlin could finally put all the pieces together and do what he's fully capable of doing and what his fans have waited nearly a decade for him to do—win the Sprint Cup Championship—2014 is that year.
He's already started strong. If he doesn't suffer the same kind of misfortune as last year, there's every reason to believe Hamlin can only get stronger and finish the strongest by season's end.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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