When Jimmie Johnson wins, NASCAR fans groan. When Denny Hamlin wins, NASCAR fans rejoice.
It’s a change for the sport that some have said suffered from four years of Johnson domination. After three wins in the first five races of this season, the need for someone to step up and challenge the No. 48 team became a prayer every week. The 2010 pre-season favorite was nowhere to be found, as a weak knee seemed to be his restraint.
Denny Hamlin was the only driver that could compete with Johnson in the 2009 Chase, however it was three DNF's that kept him from challenging for the title. Entering the new season, he was the man handpicked to dethrone Johnson, but he was going to have to do it injured.
During a basketball game, Hamlin tore his ACL and he decided to wait until after the season was over to have surgery. Johnson started winning, while Hamlin’s strength was called into question—leading to his surgery being scheduled for after Martinsville.
Hamlin won Martinsville, then won again two weeks later in Texas. Suddenly the tides were turning. The FedEx team picked up where the Lowe’s team left off, leaving the impression that Joe Gibbs Racing had adapted to NASCAR’s new spoiler quicker than any other team.
When Hamlin was victorious again three weeks later at Darlington, it became clear that his team was for real. The win, his third of the season, tied Johnson for the most in the series and in Chase bonus points. More importantly, the message was sent to competitors that this team could win on any track and would be contenders in 2010.
“We’re winning at all kinds of different racetracks now,” Hamlin said after Darlington. “At the beginning, it seemed to be pretty much short tracks and Pocono. Now we’re winning at various different types of racetracks. That’s very encouraging.”
Winning can be encouraging for anyone, except for fans that like to see variety in their racing. When Hamlin kept popping up in the winner's circle, there was a mixed bag of fan reactions. Besides the Martinsville victory, all his wins have come after he had surgery to repair his knee. Jokes, including being the "bionic man," having Johnson’s golden horseshoe implanted in his knee, and many more, have surfaced around the web.
People have eaten it all up that the driver had surgery and got better instead of needing time to recover.
It’s become common to hear others joking about wanting to have surgery in order to see if it helps them any. Following Darlington, the No. 11 team won again in Pocono and last weekend in Michigan, making it three out of the last five races. Going to the racetrack nowadays means having to beat Hamlin's JGR team, not Johnson's HMS team.
Plain and simple: Hamlin’s team has dominated the Sprint Cup Series. Fans of Hamlin are undoubtedly rejoicing, and the fans who complain about drivers who “win all the time” are celebrating, too. No, that’s not a mistake, it’s not a typo, and your ears aren’t deceiving you—those are cheers for Hamlin.
The reason that Johnson hasn’t been accepted by the NASCAR faithful, even after all he’s accomplished, is because he’s been too damn good. "Make it stop," plead fans. This time around, though, since Johnson isn’t winning, it doesn’t matter who’s beating him or by how much. As long as the No. 48 isn’t in victory lane, everyone’s happy.
To have the support of NASCAR fans, not just your own, is hard to do. Like most sports fans, people are picky in whom they chose to root for. A driver has to say the right thing, drive the right way, and perform perfectly—but not too perfectly, or everyone would love Johnson.
They most likely would have loved Jeff Gordon when he was dominating in the '90s, after coming in and beating Dale Earnhardt, Sr. at his own game. And yet, fans who didn’t like how many checkered flags they were collecting have booed Johnson and Gordon, even Earnhardt.
Hamlin has broken the mold.
In less than a half a season, he’s converted fans, pleasing those that started “Hex the 48” spells each week. He’s won with a bum knee, now a surgically-repaired knee, with the spoiler, and with different track configurations. Through it all, there have been no talks of cheating or getting help from NASCAR.
You know you've done something right when there aren't campaigns of "Anyone but the [Insert driver number here]" going around.
So far so good for Hamlin after 15 races this season, five belonging to him.
No failed inspections or mysterious cautions appearing when needed. The opposite, in fact, has happened at the end of the last two races when Hamlin led. Because of such instances, many sit back and watch to see if Hamlin and his team can keep up their motto: “All we do is win.”
If they keep on winning, it’ll be interesting to see the reaction that follows. As for Hamlin’s competitors, they too have been impressed by the team’s performance. All the pieces have come together and other organizations are chasing JGR at this point.
Says Kurt Busch: “Those guys have all the top ingredients, it seems like. When you’re a chef and somebody gets a better steak than you, it’s going to taste better. Those Gibbs guys are doing it right now with their horsepower, their aerodynamics. They’ve sorted out the spoiler, it seems like.
“If everybody had an A out there, the 11 car has an A-plus,” he finished with.
Right now, Hamlin has an A-plus with the fans too.