Denny Hamlin arrived at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November 2010 understandably brimming with confidence in his ability to meet the final challenge in a spectacular eight-victory season.
Finish in front of remaining pursuers Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick in the Ford 400 and Hamlin, days past his 30th birthday, would rule NASCAR. He had a Sprint Cup championship in his sights.
Then, not 40 miles into a 400-mile finale, that image of glory shattered, replaced by a blurring vision of concrete as his No.11 FedEx Toyota skidded sideways down the 1.5-mile oval’s back straight.
Hamlin, so tantalizingly close to history, had thought he could cope with the inherent and mounting pressure. He was wrong.
It smothered him as he attempted to make up for a disastrous qualifying run and allowed impatience to trigger contact with Greg Biffle and the spin that ruined his day and crushed his championship quest.
Fast-forward four years, to the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday. The circumstances around how Hamlin reached this point contrast markedly to those in 2010. This hasn’t been a great season for him. He has one victory among only seven top-five finishes in 35 races.
But finish ahead of fellow Championship 4 survivors Harvick, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman on Sunday, and he will wear the crown and bask in the glory that eluded him in 2010.
Amid turbulence all around him in NASCAR’s new, feast-or-famine elimination Chase for the Sprint Cup format, Hamlin’s relative calm — with one notable exception — equates to the eye of the hurricane in contrast to emotions that have repeatedly bubbled up in a pressure-cooker Chase.
“This year I feel like the pressure on our race team is a lot less than what it was in 2010,” he said on a telephone conference last week. “I’ve been in this position before, and nerves aren’t going to be an issue.”
He insisted, convincingly, that the exasperating final outcome to a dominating 2010 campaign doesn’t haunt him.
“I don’t think about it actually that often, unless we’re watching a highlight film or something on the news,” he said. “You can’t really second-guess. You have to live in the ‘now’ … Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve means nothing now.”
Darian Grubb, Hamlin’s crew chief, didn’t join Joe Gibbs Racing and team up with Hamlin until 2012. But he has witnessed the growth since Hamlin became a Sprint Cup full-timer in 2006.
“Adding stress is not going to add anything to our performance [in the championship finale],” Grubb said, “and Denny has matured a ton since the last time he was in a battle for the championship.
“He is just a different person. He has matured a lot with all the issues he has gone through … with losing a championship that way, being so frustrated with it and going through the slump he did the year after, and realizing afterwards that his attitude has a lot to do with that slump, then getting a fresh start in 2012, winning five races … ”
That isn’t to say that Hamlin is devoid of emotion. He still exhibits frustration at times. No driver is immune. He will blow off steam. He had to be restrained by crew members and officials when he furiously attempted to get at rival Brad Keselowski in a postrace fracas at Charlotte, North Carolina.
But a number of factors might influence the relative peace of mind he appears to be bringing into this intense finale.
One, he’s a father now. His daughter, Taylor, is almost 2.
Also, the four races he missed in 2013 because of a compression fracture in his back sustained when Logano bumped him into the wall at California served as a blunt reminder of how much he loves what he does, and that racing isn’t forever.
But primarily, Hamlin recognizes that whatever comes Sunday arrives as a bonus brought by the radical transformation of NASCAR’s Chase format. He has survived and advanced after a trio of three-race elimination series despite unspectacular results.
He overcame a 37th-place finish at Loudon, New Hamphsire, caused by a broken fuel probe that required time-consuming repairs in the pit. He remained viable despite an 18th-place finish at Talladega, Alabama, and reached the Eliminator Round of eight. And though he twice fell off the lead lap because of pit miscues at Phoenix this past Sunday, neither he nor the crew panicked, and Hamlin recovered to finish fifth and advance again.
Hamlin might be the most outspoken fan of the new Chase rules and eliminations.
“I think NASCAR hit a total home run,” he said, “and, obviously, it shows up with the intensity that the drivers are showing right now.”
That prompted questions about the closing-laps drama in the AAA Texas 500 in which Keselowski’s attempt to get through a narrow gap between front-runners Johnson and Jeff Gordon cut Gordon’s tire and sent him spinning. That effectively ruined Gordon’s day and season.
Hamlin spoke a bit hesitantly about Keselowski’s risky move, which most drivers would have made. He addressed more openly Keselowski’s general “just-deal-with-it” response to bitter rivals.
Chuckling, he said that he’s not the best guy to ask: “I’ve made so many mistakes it’s silly. But I’ve learned from them.”
He recalled Kyle Petty sitting him down several days after Hamlin bumped Petty out of his path and into the wall in a 2007 race. Petty, he said, let him know that he was not popular among rivals, that many believed he showed no respect.
Hamlin was stunned.
“Immediately, I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to change the way I do things …,” he said. “[Today] if you ask me, ‘Do you want a championship trophy or do you want the respect of your peers?’ I will take the respect from my peers.”
On Sunday, however, he hopes to revel in both.
Ford Championship Weekend schedule
▪ Racing — NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice, 1 to 2 p.m. and 2:30 to 4 p.m.
▪ Music — Performances starting at 1 p.m. and ending at 7 p.m. at the RV Stage.
▪ Movies — “Cars” starting at 7 p.m. and “Days of Thunder” at 9 p.m. at the RV lot.
▪ Racing — Gates open, 11:30 a.m. NASCAR Nationwide Series practice, 11:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m.; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m.; NASCAR Camping World Truck Series qualifying, 2:45 p.m. to 4:05 p.m.; NASCAR Nationwide Series final practice, 4 p.m. to 5:55 p.m.; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series qualifying, 6:15 p.m. to 7:35 p.m.; NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Ford EcoBoost 200 race, 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
▪ Music — Performances starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 9:30 a.m. at the RV Stage.
▪ Movies — “Talladega Nights” 10 p.m. to midnight at RV lot.
▪ Racing – Gates open, 11:30 a.m. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice, noon to 12:50 p.m.; NASCAR Nationwide Series qualifying, 1:15 p.m. to 2:35 p.m.; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series final practice, 3 p.m to 3:50 p.m. NASCAR Nationwide Series Ford EcoBoost 300, 4:30 to 7:30 p.m.
▪ Fishing — Hot Rods and Reels Tournament 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the Speedway.
▪ Music — Performances starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m. at the RV Stage.
▪ Fan area and activities – Coke Zero Fan Zone open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with various drivers appearing.
▪ Racing — Gates open, 10 a.m. NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400, 3 to 6:30 p.m.
▪ Music — Performances start at 10 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. featuring Jason Aldean prerace performance at 1:15 p.m. to 1:45 p.m.
▪ Fan area and activities — Coke Zero Fan Zone open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with various drivers appearing.