When Denny Hamlin entered the 2009 Chase for the Cup, he did so with confidence. He won the fall Richmond race, claimed the fourth slot in the Chase and offered this warning to his competition: “They better watch us. This team is dangerous.”
Hamlin backed it up early with a runner-up in Loudon. Then the Joe Gibbs Racing driver went to Dover, one of his worst tracks. A 22nd-place finish at the Monster Mile dropped him to sixth. Hamlin responded with a top-5 in Kansas. Then three poor finishes – starting with a dunderheaded move at Auto Club Speedway – changed the complexion of his Chase.
Racing for the lead with Juan Pablo Montoya, with plenty of race to go, Hamlin threw a block as Montoya got an inside run. Hamlin caught the nose of the No. 42 Dodge and the No. 11 Toyota slid down the track and made hard contact with the inside wall. Hamlin called it a “rookie mistake.” The 37th-place finish dropped Hamlin to ninth in the standings. Whatever slim hope remained evaporated the following week in Charlotte when an engine issue relegated Hamlin to 42nd place and his second straight DNF.
Hamlin responded the next week in Martinsville by dominating the race, leading 206 laps en route to his third victory of the year. As the series headed to the high banks of Talladega, many expected the No. 11 to be among the cars to beat. Hamlin is one of the best at utilizing the bump draft, so his game plan was thrown out the window after a last-minute rule change the day of the race. After leading 11 laps, trouble once again struck the JGR team and Hamlin was forced to the garage with another engine issue. The 38th-place finish and his third DNF in four races put the nail in the coffin for Hamlin’s chances at his first championship.
Despite the outcomes at Fontana, Charlotte and Talladega, Hamlin continued to run up front and challenge for the win each week. After Talladega, Hamlin went on to score a 2nd in Texas, a 3rd in Phoenix and a first Sunday in Homestead.
His promise heading into the Chase proved to be true; this team was truly dangerous. What was more dangerous for this team was the bad luck it made for itself, and that it could not avoid.
Hamlin out-performed many of his fellow Chase drivers. During the 10-race span, the Virginia native led 388 laps, had six top-5s, two wins and five top-three finishes. Compare that to Mark Martin, who led 98 laps, had one win and five top-five finishes. Those three DNFs meant the difference between a runner-up finish in the championship and fifth-place. (For more on why, read up on the Watermill Score.)
Consistency is the key to winning a championship. Hamlin could not stay consistent this year and he knows it. “I mean, as far as the Chase is concerned, there’s 10 races, and you’ve got to perform really good and be flawless those 10,” Hamlin said Sunday. “It looks like the trend has been you get one bad race if you want to be a champion. The other 2nd through 12th had multiple bad races. But each one of those races where we blew up, we were leading, and if we had just averaged seventh or eighth I think in those races, then we’re out on the front stage celebrating right now.”
As he enters his fifth full season in the Cup Series, Hamlin appears ready for more. Everyone will be gunning for the 48 team next year. The No. 11 team proved in 2009 it has the chops to actually do so.