Jimmie Johnson is a marked man.
Not just by the 42 drivers that will begin 2010 looking to end his championship streak at four, but most notably by a man that has a great shot at doing so.
After winning the final race of the 2009 season and proclaiming in victory lane, “I promise you in the next couple of years, we’re going to win the championship,” Denny Hamlin quickly became the preseason favorite for 2010.
He could have been the favorite to win the 2009 Chase and give Johnson a run for his money had it not been for three DNF’s in the final 10 races.
Hamlin rebounded strong though and finished fifth in points after winning two of the final five races, including the season ending finale at Homestead.
The momentum has Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing heading into the offseason very optimistic, not just about Hamlin’s chances, but for the entire organizations.
Kyle Busch will be looking to prove that his missing the 2009 Chase wasn’t something he’ll make a habit of doing. He’ll begin the New Year on a new note with crew chief Dave Rogers.
Rookie of the Year Joey Logano will be aiming to continue his upward climb through the point standings. He finished 20th in 2009 and looks to earn his second career win.
Many say he may be the dark horse to make the 2010 Chase.
It’ll be Hamlin though, that will lead the charge.
After debuting in the series in 2006, he’s made every Chase field and seems to get better as the years went go on.
Following the win at Homestead, Joe Gibbs Racing, president J.D. Gibbs, revealed that he felt only reason they have yet to win a title is because the No. 11 team may have tried and pushed too hard in years past.
They’ll be ready to try again in 2010, this time with Hamlin knowing full well that he has the potential and the confidence to take down Johnson.
Except, he’ll have to figure out how to take the luck away from the No. 48 team after telling them at the Sprint Cup awards banquet, “Since I’ve been in the Cup Series you guys have been champions, I may be your good luck charm.”
The luck will need to stay with Hamlin as he puts the disappointing and somewhat haunting ‘what could have been’ 2009 Chase behind him.
“Each of those races where we blew up, were leading [and wrecked] and if we had just averaged seventh or eighth I think in those races, then we’re out on the front stage celebrating right now,” Hamlin says.
He acknowledges and admits that he can’t make driver mistakes next year, that the likely champion will only get to have one bad race. Much like Johnson this year with his wreck at Texas.
A positive surrounding the No. 11 FedEx team is that they’ll continue to be led by Mike Ford, who has been with Hamlin since 2006 and has guided him to all of his eight career wins.
The core of the team is expected to stay intact and they can get to work during the offseason on focusing on the new season.
What won’t have to be worked on is the communication between Hamlin and Ford, since both have said they finally feel they’re on the same page each weekend.
When Hamlin speaks from inside the car, Ford knows what he means and can quickly diagnose the problem, giving Hamlin the confidence that could take JGR back to the head table in Las Vegas.
“You talk about Denny having the confidence starting the season, I think it’s humbling,” Ford says.
“I think the last couple of years were humbling and we kind of all went together, and Denny’s confidence and his driving and realizing that he needed to take a leadership role with the team and work through the issues rather than stomp feet, walk away, and be frustrated.”
He continued with, “That, being able to work through the issues came in a long way, and that to me is the difference. I think that was the strongest point of our season was gaining that unit.”
The team has gelled, the crew chief and driver have a strong bond, and they’re all ready and capable of becoming the next Sprint Cup Series champions.
Hamlin for the most part doesn’t appear too anxious to get back to racing.
He doesn’t have to be at Daytona until January for the Preseason Thunder Fan Fest, and until then he’s busy in North Carolina working on opening a new nightclub called “Butter.”
Recently he sent out a message via Twitter asking anyone if they were interested in working at the new hotspot to head down for interviews.
He’s also scheduled to undergo minor knee surgery that he’s put off because he still likes to get together with friends and play basketball.
No pressure, no sleepless nights in anticipation, just enjoying his 2009 success before getting after it in 2010, only this time he’s everyone’s best bet to win the championship.
Let’s just hope Hamlin doesn’t follow in Carl Edwards’ footsteps.
After Edwards became the preseason favorite for 2009, well, we all know what type of year he had.