What are we seeing here?
Denny Hamlin crossed under the checkered flag first after 400 miles at Michigan. He held off Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch, the other two strongest cars in the field, during the closing laps. That is the basic picture of Sunday afternoon.
But the bigger picture shows us Hamlin may be a serious title contender.
The Virginia native raised a Cup race-winning trophy for the fifth time in 15 championship events in 2010 and second in a row. He is third in Cup Series standings. And if the Chase were set today, Hamlin would have a lock on the point lead with his 50 bonus points for those five wins.
Is he the challenger that so many Jimmie Johnson haters have waited for during the past four years? Is Joe Gibbs Racing the organization that will dethrone mighty Hendrick Motorsports?
Hamlin’s winning streak began in Martinsville following his ACL surgery. That puts his current streak at five wins in his last ten races. NASCAR Cup garage area observers are zeroing in on the JGR group as a leading candidate to engrave another name besides Johnson on the championship trophy.
But we have seen this before.
As recently as 2008, Kyle Busch was the tour’s leading winner heading into the Chase with eight. Predictions had him walking off with the crown and tuxedo measurements should have taken place in September. Then the proverbial wheels fell off in the final ten events. Busch finished the season in tenth position with no additional victories. That could have been the beginning of the end for Steve Addington’s tenure as crew chief for Busch.
There have been a few seasons where the championship challengers were plentiful. The first 26 races didn’t show a clear-cut dominant favorite. But as the Chase began, Johnson and his team operated in a methodical, calculated manner that left the rest of the field scratching their heads after the Homestead finale. Repeatedly.
So as the summer heat begins, Denny Hamlin has stepped up to play the part of David to Johnson’s Goliath. JGR has armed Hamlin with a slingshot that has been spot-on as of late and has no trouble hitting the bullseye.
Is Chad Knaus working his team like he has been for the last four seasons running? Is Jimmie Johnson smiling, relaxed and saying all the correct words in interviews while he smiles in confidence knowing what is coming? Or are Denny Hamlin and Mike Ford the real deal who has found the combination to claim a championship and beat NASCAR Chase-master Johnson?
Time will tell.
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