Ever since losing the Sprint Cup title in 2010 to Jimmie Johnson and having a dismal season in 2011, Denny Hamlin has done a plenty of soul searching.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Denny Hamlin is just fine, but thanks for asking.
Of course, nobody really believed that Hamlin was OK after losing the 2010 championship to Jimmie Johnson in the season finale. He moped around like a baby for a good while, and, although he’s quiet by nature, he seemed withdrawn. When his mood never really improved, and his results on the race track slipped significantly, people began to openly wonder about Hamlin’s psyche.
WHO: NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers.
WHAT: 2012 Daytona 500, first official race of the season.
WHEN: Noon Sunday.
WHERE: Daytona Beach, Fla.
As he starts a fresh season with a new crew chief, Hamlin is determined to show he’s not a head case and can win a Sprint Cup title. Although he admitted late last season to working with noted sports psychologist Bob Rotella, Hamlin said he’s got everything under control.
“People make a big deal out of this whole Bob Rotella thing. I saw him twice. Twice. In a two-hour period,” Hamlin said. “It’s not like I’m seeing the guy weekly and I’ve got serious problems.” Hamlin then added: “But, basically, it was how excited am I supposed to be? Or, how am I not supposed to hang my head when we run like absolute (junk)?
“I’m embarrassed. I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want to be seen because I viewed myself as pathetic last year the way we ran.”
Indeed, 2011 was a steep drop-off from his near-championship run.
Hamlin won eight races in 2010 and took a 15-point lead over Johnson into the season finale. But he admits now he didn’t have a shot at winning the title, largely because of a devastating result the week before at Phoenix.
Hamlin dominated in the desert and seemed headed to a victory that would have likely put the nail in Johnson’s reign of four straight titles. Instead, a miscalculation on fuel forced him to make a late pit stop. He finished 12th, Johnson was fifth, and Hamlin never recovered.
He was a nervous wreck the entire weekend at Homestead — Johnson and fellow title contender Kevin Harvick openly mocked Hamlin’s perceived fragility — and it showed in a poor qualifying effort, an early on-track incident, and a flat, 14th-place finish.
Hamlin ultimately lost the title by 39 points.
“In Homestead, for sure I knew that we were in trouble. Even with the point lead — people never get over that Game 6 where they lost,” he said. “I never felt it. You know you feel like, ‘OK, this is it, this is our day to win the championship?’ Just something about it (race day morning) and I never felt it.”
That hangover carried into 2011. Hamlin won just one race and barely made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He finished ninth in the final series standings, and crew chief Mike Ford was replaced a few weeks later by Darian Grubb, who had just led Tony Stewart to the championship.
Three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip likened Hamlin’s plight to his 11-point loss to Richard Petty in the 1979 title race. Although Waltrip won five races the next year, he finished fifth in the standings and changed teams in 1981.
“Denny Hamlin had to get another crew chief. It is hard on you mentally, it really takes its toll when you invest everything you’ve got — energy, emotion — in trying to win the championship, and you come up short,” Waltrip said. “It drains you. And you don’t always get over it in one winter. You don’t get over it in 90 days. Sometimes to bounce back and be a factor the next year is one of the hardest things a driver ever has to do. A driver and a team.”
But Hamlin insists he’s doing just fine now, and every indication is that he indeed has finally bounced back to his old self.
He spent seven weeks during the offseason in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he worked on his golf game — Hamlin said he was a 20 handicap a year ago, and has it down “in the single digits now” — and truly lived on his own for the first time in his life.
Hamlin doesn’t want his time in Arizona to be characterized as a time for self-discovery or healing. Even so, he returned to Daytona International Speedway a different person. He’s smiling again, his confidence is back, and after taking a big step back from Twitter, where he was one of NASCAR’s most engaging drivers, he’s conversing with fans again on the social media site.
“I think Scottsdale was good. I had daily chores that I had to do. I picked up after myself. You don’t realize how messy you are until you don’t have somebody walking right behind you picking up your clothes,” he said. “I thought about racing very little for like a month and a half. Then two weeks (ago) I was like, ‘Alright, I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go back to work.’”
No matter his mind-set, Hamlin’s success will depend largely this year on the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing and how quickly he can establish a strong line of communication with Grubb. Ford was the only crew chief Hamlin had, as the two were paired in Hamlin’s 2006 rookie season. They won 17 races together and made the Chase every year.
But JGR as a whole was off last season. Although Kyle Busch won four races and went into the Chase as the top seed, he faltered out of the gate and never challenged for the title. Joey Logano also struggled, and Hamlin ultimately was the highest-finishing JGR driver in the final standings.
So he feels confident that he alone was not to blame for the performance of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota.
“If Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are out-running me every single week, then it’s time I look in the mirror,” Hamlin said. “If they don’t, then we need to figure out what about our cars we need to work on to get better because we have, in my opinion, some really good drivers that should be winning and leading a lot of laps.”
“But I feel like there’s new hope this year. We have a new crew chief. I listen to the way he does things, listen to what he did to his cars versus what we do to our cars, and I’m like, ‘Yeah that sounds like a good direction.’ I believe in that. I’ve got new optimism.”