Leading up to the 2010 Sprint Cup Series season, many marked Denny Hamlin as the driver to dethrone four-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson at season's end in Miami. Thus far, Hamlin has lived up to the hype, having won a series-high six races and clinching the first seed for the Chase.
The Chesterfield, Va., native started the season off slow, having a best finish of 17th at Daytona in the first five races. However, his luck changed in March where he won the first race at Martinsville with the spoiler back on the car.
After winning the race, Hamlin boarded a plane back to Charlotte to have knee surgery to repair a torn ACL that he suffered the offseason.
With critics doubting whether Hamlin would be able to contend for the championship, he won again two weeks later at Texas. Since the knee surgery, Hamlin has silenced the critics by winning another four times and starting the Chase at the top of the standings, placing himself in great position to contend for the title.
Hamlin has everything that is needed in a driver to win the most coveted trophy in the series. He drives for arguably the second-most dominant team in Sprint Cup along with with fellow teammate and Chase contender Kyle Busch. Together, they have a total of nine wins, 19 Top Fives, 27 Top 10s, three DNFs, and a combined 1,883 laps led this season. Late in nearly each race, at least one of these Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are in contention for the win.
Denny has the privilege of driving behind the excellent leadership of team owner Joe Gibbs, a former NFL coach for the Washington Redskins who has won the Sprint Cup championship three times since 2000.
Gibbs has had his hands full at Charlotte during the All-Star Race, however, when Hamlin and teammate Kyle Busch butted heads after a late-race incident.
The calm and collected team owner defused the situation and urged the drivers to focus on the big picture: the championship. Having won the Super Bowl three times, Joe is an excellent team builder who places the right personnel with the right driver.
This is where Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, comes in. Ford was a jackman and mechanic for Dale Jarrett from 1996-1999. Together, they won 18 races: the 1996 Daytona 500, two Brickyard 400s, and the 1999 Cup championship. Plus, he never finished lower than third in points.
Before being named Hamlin's crew chief, he sat atop the pit box for Bill Elliott and Dale Jarrett, winning five times, including the 2002 Brickyard 400. With Ford's leadership, Hamlin has won 14 times since his rookie campaign in 2005, and has consistently provided excellent cars for Denny to drive.
With all the positive leadership in place and competing for the great team that is Joe Gibbs Racing, there is still one major unknown for Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx Toyota: mechanical failures. During the 2009 Chase, Denny fell victim to engine failures at Charlotte and Talladega, finishing 37th and 38th, respectively.
During the offseason Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) made leaps and bounds to increase the reliability of their engines and cars and have had one engine failure (Hamlin at Atlanta earlier this month) compared to the four they suffered last season. With the engine woes of 2009 seemingly laid to rest, it will be important to see if the cars hold up during the next nine weeks when performance matters the most.
With every driver in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup having his own demons to overcome in order to hoist the trophy at season's end, Hamlin is the only one whose issues ride more on the hands of his crew members at the track and back at the shop in Huntersville.
If reliable cars are loaded on to the hauler the next nine weeks and the pit crew keeps up with the car by making the correct adjustments, Denny Hamlin is primed to dethrone Jimmie Johnson and bring the championship trophy back to Joe Gibbs Racing.
For the latest NASCAR talk and information, you can find Kyle on Twitter using the handle @TheKyleBrandt.
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