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NASCAR Season Preview: Denny Hamlin

Photo credit: SSG Andrew H. Owen, VA National Guard (CC-Gen)

#11 FedEx Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing

Born: November 18, 1980

Home: Midlothian, Virginia

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Hamlin made the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the sixth consecutive season, finishing ninth in the standings after winning one race at Michigan. He also continued to assert his status as a driver to beat at Martinsville, a track at which he now owns a career average finish of 6.5; although he didn’t win either race (as he won both in 2010), Hamlin led a total of 147 laps.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Hamlin spent much of the season outside of the top 10 in points, even hovering in 20th place or worse for a handful of races. When he did make the Chase, he spent half of it in 12th place (out of 12), only climbing out of the hole very late. Compared to 2010’s second place run, 2011 was a major disappointment.

SEASON OUTLOOK: The same hangover that frequently befalls Chase runner-ups claimed Hamlin last season, as he went from eight race wins to one, two poles to zero, and second place in points to ninth. In response, Joe Gibbs Racing canned longtime Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford and replaced him with Darian Grubb, fresh off a Sprint Cup title with Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing. It won’t be the only change at Gibbs’ operation, as the team has merged its engine program with Toyota’s own; Gibbs suffered an unusually high number of engine issues early in 2011 in the wake of a February flash fire in their engine department, but the team has claimed that the merger was mostly due to economics.

Either way, Hamlin must be hoping that the significant amount of organizational changes make a serious difference in his 2012 campaign. Adding Grubb, whose release was in the works before the Chase and was never reconsidered, is a sign that this team is serious about getting back to the level that they were at in 2010. The key will be to start much stronger – both in February and at the beginning of the Chase, this team was sluggish out of the gate. If they’re not spending all season trying to make up ground, they have a better chance to re-establish the confidence that Jimmie Johnson seemingly shook out of them in the final two rounds of the 2010 Chase.

– Chris Leone

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