Denny Hamlin won eight NASCAR Sprint Cup races in 2010 and had his best ever finish in the points, finishing second to Jimmie Johnson. How does that bode for his 2011 season?
Take a look at the recent history of the drivers who finished runner up during Johnson's five year title run.
In 2006, second place Matt Kenseth won four races. The following year, he slipped to fourth in the standings and saw his victory total cut in half.
In 2007, Jeff Gordon won six races and pushed Johnson to the wire. The next year, he went winless for the first time since his rookie campaign.
In 2008, Carl Edwards led all drivers with nine victories while challenging Johnson for the title. He failed to reach Victory Lane the following season and dropped all the way to eleventh in the standings.
In 2009, a resurgent Mark Martin posted five wins and finished second in the standings for the fifth time in his career. Last year he netted zero victories and missed the Chase field altogether.
See a pattern?
After each of Johnson's championship runs, the pundits invariably anointed the previous year's runner up as a favorite to beat Johnson. None of them have even come close.
Denny Hamlin must try to buck the trend of those who fell just short of the title, but there are even more compelling stats that stack up against him.
Loop data shows that Hamlin wasn't nearly as dominant in 2010 as you might think based on his eight wins.
In fact, Hamlin had just the fifth best average driver rating. He ranked ninth in average running position, and 12th in quality passes. Hamlin was eighth fastest early in runs and also ranked eighth in laps run on lead lap. Hamlin actually led fewer laps in 2010 than he did in 2009.
Those stats indicate that Hamlin’s eight wins were likely an aberration. Only once previously had he won more than two races in a season, and it is unlikely that he can produce the same results two years in a row.
In addition, Hamlin wasn’t nearly as consistent in 2010 as his second place points finish might seem to suggest. Johnson and Kevin Harvick each scored more than Hamlin’s fourteen top fives. Even more significantly, a total of four other drivers—Johnson, Harvick, Edwards, and Greg Biffle—compiled more than Hamlin’s eighteen top tens.
To put Hamlin’s top ten total in perspective, consider that Jimmie Johnson has never scored fewer than 22 top 10 during his five year title reign. That type of consistency is required to win championships, and Denny Hamlin doesn’t have it. He has never scored more than twenty top tens in a single season.
Denny Hamlin will almost certainly win some races this season, but he will not come close to matching his 2010 victory total. Nor will he seriously contend for the title, unless he finds a way to boost his top ten total.
The 2011 season is young, but after three races Hamlin has just one top ten and has led only sixteen laps. He'll need to pick up the pace if he wants to fulfill his goal of finally winning a Sprint Cup championship. Don’t count Denny Hamlin out, but take care before assuming he will automatically repeat his brilliant 2010 season.