Denny Hamlin entered the 2011 season as one of the favorites to win the Sprint Cup title on the heels of a runner-up 2010 campaign in which he won a series-high eight races.
But instead of being a top contender for the title this year, Hamlin and the No. 11 team limped into the Chase with just one victory on the year. Now, just two races into the Chase, Hamlin finds himself 66 points behind the leader and is all but eliminated from championship contention.
With such a deficit, is Hamlin giving up on 2011? Here are his own words at a NASCAR teleconference on Tuesday afternoon:
"In the position I'm in at this point, we're going out there and we're trying to win, and that's what we need to do to get back on track for 2012 is to win a few races before the season is over, and I feel like a no-points-pressure situation is just what we need...
"We're going out each week just trying to have fun and worrying about winning a race before the season is over with... [and] we want to be heading in the right direction into 2012."
Shifting the focus to 2012 is understandable given the hole Hamlin is in with eight races to go on the season, and Hamlin also acknowledged the he would "definitely" be taking bigger chances to win than he would were he in actual championship contention.
But what went wrong for Hamlin in 2011 to get him to this point? The season has been nothing short of a shocking disappointment after the high hopes all those with the No. 11 team had entering the season.
A lot of attention has been paid to the relationship between Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford, and Hamlin admitted that he and Ford have sometimes not been on the same page in 2011. Hamlin believes in his crew chief but didn't hesitate to give Ford a share of the blame for his failures on the track:
"I feel like Mike is the guy for me. I feel like he's done a great job. He won me eight races last year. Some of the things that we've had go wrong this year are crew chief related, some of them are not. Most of them are not. Some of them are driver related. It weighs on all of our shoulders equally, and I feel like he's kind of received a bit of a bad rap because of that...
"I think at times during the season we've gotten off track between the two of us, and I feel like these last four or five weeks the communication has been better. I feel like we were heading in the right direction, we've just had some things go wrong these first couple Chase races that makes it look worse than it really is."
Hamlin spread the responsibility for his poor showing this season:
"There's been weeks where I can put some of the responsibility on Mike, there's been some weeks that it ultimately goes on my shoulders, and there's some weeks where it's things back at the shop that need to be improved on.
"Until we have one specific thing that we need to work on and can identify as a problem, I can't see changing much. But I feel like we have a good group of guys. I can win a championship with Mike; I really and truly do believe that. But we've just got to get our ship righted. It seems like our communication at some point in the year got stale."
Finally, Hamlin acknowledged that his 2011 season has been the worst of his career, regardless of what type of car he's been driving. He believes his struggles are an opportunity to learn perseverance and that his team simply needs to gear up for 2012 and move past the disappointments of the current season:
"I've never had a year like this year, not even on the local short track level. I've always won races, always competed for a championship just about every year that I've been in one division or another, so no, I've never gone through a year like this before.
"Honestly hopefully it's a character builder for myself and the race team to kind of get back to reality of how tough this business is, and we know that what we're capable of, and hopefully this is just a year where we kind of reset and go on to next year and get back to our form of 2010."
While Hamlin's 2011 season may be over from a championship perspective, he is still one of the most talented and promising young drivers in the sport. If he and the No. 11 team can take the positives from this difficult year, there is every reason to expect Hamlin to be a serious title contender for years to come.
Luke Krmpotich is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.