Darlington Delivery: Denny Hamlin Proving Why He's NASCAR Title Material
It wasn't long ago that Denny Hamlin was the subject of conversation surrounding a torn ACL that was supposedly going to slow down his championship efforts this season. After all, it's an injury that derails most stick and ball athletes' years, requiring months of rehabilitation and mental recovery with the game.
Given his slow start in 2010, he hardly supported preseason prognostications as a spoiler to Jimmie Johnson's bid for a fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup title. No way was the 29-year-old native of Chesterfield, Va. apt for the challenge ahead, much less perform at 100 percent in the ever competitive game of stock car racing.
However, the tale of Hamlin's season seems to be more on par with the thoughts from the offseason, in which the 2006 Rookie of the Year winner was considered as the man to dethrone four-time titlist Jimmie Johnson's quest at a five-peat.
Based on his thoughts after winning Saturday night's Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, he sounded more like the man who's determined to hoist the Cup than someone walking wounded in the garage area in Phoenix International Raceway just a month ago.
"I can’t tell you how excited I am about us winning right now because I know what our team is capable of when we get to Chase time,” Hamlin said in an AP Sports recap piece by Jenna Fryer. "We didn’t expect this success, but we felt like we could contend for race wins and maybe get one here or there in the first 12."
A relatively quick learner and racer who flat out competes tenaciously for victories, the throwback driver has been on the verge of realizing the ultimate dream of every competitor on the circuit: the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Despite four off-mark finishes that prevented the Virginian from truly challenging in last year's Chase, his performances down the stretch were noteworthy. Witness:
Hamlin triumphed at Martinsville in October, dominating the TUMS Fast Relief 500 and bumping NASCAR's dominant star from the lead spot to grab his third win of 2009.
Typical Talladega misfortunes spoiled the FedEx Toyota Camry's Chase performances, albeit a 38th-place detour that slowed down an efficient postseason.
Not one to be deterred from a superspeedway disappointment, Hamlin made his presence known as a legit title contender for many years to come, placing second, third, and first at Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead-Miami, respectively.
In typical fashion, he went as far to say that nobody could stop his No. 11 team from winning titles except themselves. While it was a fairly reasonable assessment, his statement ranged from sheer confidence to hotshot cockiness.
If there's one thing about Hamlin that cannot be taken for granted, it's that he's a man of his word, backing up his statements with his hard-charging, winner-takes-it-all approach. He embodies an NFL mentality, perhaps something that compliments the Joe Gibbs Racing outfit that houses two young talents in Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.
For all the talk that Busch got with a supposed image change, it was Hamlin who rose to the occasion, winning the Nationwide race on Friday night and triumphing in Saturday night's Showtime Southern 500.
Just six circuits short of leading the most laps, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota hung around the top-10 virtually all race-long, pacing the field 104 times with one of the team's older arsenals. It's quite impressive, considering that most of the field utilized newer equipment.
Crew chief Mike Ford noted how the team is licking its chops for the Brickyard 400 in July, a point in which he feels Hamlin and company will truly get their act together. Conservative or modest, it's a scary thought to wonder how much better the No. 11 unit might get down the stretch.
"Knowing what we've got coming later in the season, what we're working on...I'm surprised how strong we are right now," Ford said. Careful with his words, he said that the team was preparing its cars for the Chase right now. Talk about confidence, with Hamlin's competitive spirit resonating with his entire team.
Perhaps it was sweet redemption for Hamlin, who came up short in his bid for a Darlington victory in 2007. Having led for a race-high 179 laps, it was in that year's Southern 500 when the young gun blew a fuse with his pit crew, throwing them to the wolves and sharks for their inefficient pit stops.
Nowadays, the FedEx pit crew is one of the elite in the series, reeling off lightning fast stops, which in turn, translates to opportunities for wins and maximum points in the championship standings.
Conquering Darlington is a NASCAR driver's statement that they can overcome the most difficult of situations. All things considered, it's a bit fitting and appropriate that one of the sport's grittiest competitors is now celebrating Mother's Day weekend with a weekend sweep.
B/R Nation, did any of you, for a moment, remember that Hamlin had surgery a month ago because of an ACL injury? Or that he didn't get his first top-10 finish of the season until his victory at Martinsville in late March?
How about the fact that he's gutted out every race since his surgery, initially struggling to the finish at Phoenix before winning at Texas, placing fourth at Talladega, and surviving the Richmond battlefields for an 11th-place effort?
Based on his performances as of late, batting .500 in the past six races, he's solidifying his place as a legit title contender. Keep in mind, he's still recovering and much like his former teammate in Tony Stewart, Hamlin warms up when the summer stretch starts.
As the circuit prepares for next Sunday's Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway, here's some stats to consider with Hamlin. He now sits sixth in points, with four-top 10 performances, which are all top-five finishes.
With all the customary praises that the Hendrick trio gets for winning races and championships, the 2010 season may be the time in which Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing celebrates with a trophy in hand at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
While some of the teams are thinking about the future, JGR racer Denny Hamlin is thinking about the present and what he and crew chief Mike Ford can do to keep their winning ways going for a title.
After their solid effort on Saturday night, which resulted in a win at one of the sport's toughest circuits, there's no telling how dominant they may be in the summer. If indeed they're using older cars, who knows just how much better their new equipment will be when the mercury reaches the boiling point in America's finest racing facilities.
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