The 2010 NASCAR season is now in the books, and stop me if you have heard this before, Jimmie Johnson is the champion.
For the fifth straight season, Johnson fought off all of his competitors and once again hoisted the Sprint Cup. This year was a little bit different, however. For the first time in his now record five year reign as champion, Johnson had to come from behind at the season finale to win the title.
And while Johnson gets to celebrate for the fifth straight year, that means that for the fifth year in a row, someone had to finish runner up to Johnson.
This year it was Denny Hamlin, who ultimately came up short in his quest to unseat the incumbent champion. The difference this time around; however, was that the driver who failed to overtake Johnson as the champion, actually held the lead going into Homestead.
That might make a second place points finish for Hamlin even harder to accept.
Hamlin led the series with eight wins this season, but that is hardly any consolation to a man who, with some different luck, could have very easily had a ninth win at Phoenix, and ultimately a points lead of about 70 points heading in to the season's final race.
So, now the question for Hamlin is, what's next? Is his failed attempt to overthrow Johnson going to be motivation heading in to 2011? Did he learn enough this season to put himself back into the championship hunt next season? Or, on the flip side, is the disappointment of what could have been going to linger and lead to a frustrating season next year?
To answer that question, maybe we need to look backwards a little bit. How have the drivers that went head to head with Johnson in the past fared the following season?
In each of Johnson's five championship runs, the runner up was someone different. The first driver to finish second to Johnson was Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth had a championship caliber season in 2006, winning four races. He also had the second most top 10 finishes that season, behind Johnson, as well as leading the second most laps that season.
In 2007, the season after his runner up finish to Johnson, Kenseth only fell off slightly. His win total was cut from four to two, and while he wasn't up near the front as much as the season before, he actually had one more top 10 than in his second place season.
Kenseth ultimately finished the 2007 season in fourth place in the point standings.
The next man to try and dethrone Johnson was his teammate, Jeff Gordon. Statistically speaking, 2007 was one of Gordon's best in Sprint Cup competition. He was second in the series with six wins. He led the series in top 5's and top 10's.
Under the traditional point system, and not the Chase format, Gordon actually would have been the run away champion in 2007. He would have won the title by 353 points. Instead, he lost by 77.
One season after the disappointment of second place, Gordon struggled in 2008. That season, he went winless for the first time since his rookie season of 1993, and he had 11 fewer top 10 finishes than the season before.
Carl Edwards was the man to finish 2008 behind Johnson. Edwards was the dominant driver that year. He won nine races, which led the series. He also led the way in top 5 finishes, and had five more top 10 finishes than any other driver.
Much like Gordon the season before, Edwards would have been the one holding the Sprint Cup in Miami, had the points been decided the traditional way. But, alas, they were not, and once again, Johnson claimed the title.
Everyone expected Edwards to rebound in 2009 and be the one to unseat Johnson. But that wasn't meant to be, as 2009 turned out disastrous for Edwards.
Inexplicably, Edwards went winless in 2009, and he had his top 10 finishes cut nearly in half. After posting 19 top 5's in 2008, he could only manage seven the following season. Edwards limped to an extremely disappointing eleventh place finish in the standings.
In his quest for a record breaking fourth consecutive championship in 2009, Johnson would once again have to go through a teammate. This time around, it was the feel good story that was the 50 year old Mark Martin.
Martin found victory lane five times in 2009, which was the first time in 10 years that he had scored multiple victories in the same season. He led the series with seven pole positions and posted his most top 5's for a season since 1999.
But, ultimately, Martin finished second in the point standings in 2009, marking the fifth time in his career that he was the runner up to the title.
Much like Edwards and Gordon before him, Martin struggled in the season following his second place run to Johnson. In 2010, he went winless, and saw his top 5 and top 10 totals each cut in half. Martin finished the season a disappointing thirteenth in the standings.
So, now it goes back to Hamlin, and what does his runner up finish do to his mentality and his confidence? History has shown, that after finishing second in the standings to Johnson, you can expect a disappointment the next season, as Kenseth is the only driver to even score a victory in the season after being a runner up to Johnson.
I worry about Hamlin after this disappointing finish to the season. You could see the frustration at Phoenix, and that disappointment was only multiplied at Homestead.
No one is ever going to question Hamlin's ability behind the wheel, nor is there any doubt that he is confident in what he does, but where is his head going to be at Daytona next February?
Is he going to focused on making another run at Johnson, or his he going to be living in the past and wondering what could have been had things gone differently at either of this seasons two final races?
The one luxury that the other four drivers that have finished second to Johnson have had, was that they were trailing him going into the finale, and they were the ones that had to be perfect to have any chance of winning the title.
That's not the case with Hamlin. He had the points lead going to Miami, and he couldn't close the deal. Unfortunately for Hamlin, I think that frustration and heartbreak is going to carry over and linger into 2011.
But that remains to be seen, and Hamlin certainly has the talent to get back right into the car and pick up right where he left off this season in his pursuit of a championship.
And, while finishing second is never any fun, at least when it comes to finishing runner up to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, at least Denny Hamlin can say that he is in some pretty good company.