Hamlin looking to jumpstart Cup season with Martinsville win
2010 title contender Denny Hamlin has just one top-10 finish in five races
Engine troubles have been the biggest issue Hamlin and JGR have faced this year
Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon will run in front, challenge Hamlin for the win
It feels like a very long time ago, that afternoon in South Florida last November when Denny Hamlin strode toward his No. 11 Toyota parked on pit road, just 400 miles from the NASCAR championship. Hamlin entered the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 15-point lead in the standings over Jimmie Johnson, but then, in a heartbeat, his title hopes went up in the cloud of smoke caused by his early race collision with Greg Biffle. With his car wounded, Hamlin was never a factor in the race and finished 14th. He lost the title to Johnson by 39 points.
Hamlin hasn't been the same on the track since. Through five races in 2011, he has just one top-10 run (seventh at Las Vegas) and has finished 20th or worse three times. Last Sunday in Fontana, Calif., Hamlin blew an engine midway through the race and came in 39th, which dropped him to 21st in the standings.
Yet Hamlin is a notoriously slow starter. Heading into the sixth race of the season in 2010, he was 19th in the standings; in '08 he was 15th -- and he went on to qualify for the Chase both years. Can he rebound in 2011? If he's going to, his charge needs to start this Sunday at Martinsville.
"We are in no way shape or form panicking or anything like that," Hamlin says.
Well, at least not yet, mostly because Hamlin will be the overwhelming favorite to take the checkered flag at Martinsville, which is by far his best track on the Cup circuit. How dominating has Hamlin been at the paper clip-shaped, .526-mile track, which is the shortest on the Cup schedule? In his last three starts here, Hamlin has three wins. In his last nine starts at the track, he has a hard-to-believe average finish of 2.4. Put simply, in recent years he's owned the joint.
Hamlin's biggest issue this weekend could be his motor. Joe Gibbs Racing has lost six motors this season -- three in practice sessions, three during races. JGR engineers have been baffled by these failures -- each blowout appears to have been caused by a different reason -- and they'll be holding their breaths on Sunday as the laps wind down at a place that stresses motors because of the high RPMs the cars generate on the front- and backstretches.
But I don't think Hamlin will have mechanical issues this weekend. After all, in his six year Cup career, he's never blown engines on back-to-back weekends. In this race a year ago Hamlin blasted from seventh to first over the final two laps, which, for my money, was the single most impressive feat during a NASCAR race in 2010. It says here Hamlin gets the job done on Sunday and wins his first event of 2011.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies:
1. Jimmie Johnson
The five-time defending Cup champion has nearly been as dominant as Hamlin at Martinsville. Between 2006 and '09, Johnson won five of six races at the short track. He's cooled a bit -- no finish higher than fifth in his last two Martinsville starts -- but on Sunday he should be Hamlin's primary competition.
After beginning the season slowly, Johnson is starting to come on. Two weeks ago he came in third at Bristol and last Sunday he was second at Fontana. Johnson, who is now up to fifth in the standings, hasn't reached Victory Lane yet in 2011, but expect that to change within the next three weeks.
2. Jeff Gordon
After winning at Phoenix in late February, Gordon hasn't finished higher than 14th. At the time the victory at PIR looked like it would be a career-resuscitating performance; but now it's looking more and more like a one-race aberration. After finishing 18th last weekend at Fontana, Gordon has fallen to 16th in the standings.
Years ago, Gordon ruled Martinsville like Hamlin does today. Between 2003 and '05, Gordon won four races here. He's still very good at Martinsville -- he finished in the top-5 in 11 of his last 12 starts at the short track -- and he'll likely be running with the leaders as the laps wind down Sunday. Can he notch victory No. 2 of 2011? If he does, that would surpass his win total from the previous three seasons combined.
3. Carl Edwards
Through five races, Edwards clearly has emerged as the top driver of 2011. He has one win, three top-5s, and four top 10s. He leads the points standings and it would not be a surprise if he takes the first Martinsville checkered flag of his career Sunday.
Edwards will be piloting chassis RK-726. This is the same car he drove earlier this season at Phoenix. On that afternoon in the desert, Edwards was the class of the field. He likely would have won, but instead was caught up in an early accident and finished a disappointing 28th. If can avoid suffering a similar fate at Martinsville, he should be good for at least for a top-5 run.
4. Kyle Busch
For years Busch has been known as the most up-and-down, hot-and-cold, hit-or-miss, all-or-nothing driver in NASCAR. But not in 2011. So far Busch has been as consistent as anyone outside of Carl Edwards. Aside from suffering a blown engine at Las Vegas, Busch has finished in the top 10 each race and he won at Bristol. In other words, this could the season that Busch finally becomes a serious title contender.
Busch should once again be fast this weekend. In his last three starts at Martinsville, he's finished in the top-five twice. He's never won here, but it would hardly be considered an upset if he takes the checkers Sunday. I think Busch will win in the neighborhood of seven Cup races this year.