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Caraviello: Crew chief change a cure for year-long hangover?

December 07, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Hamlin, Ford never seemed to get over their near-miss at a championship in 2010

During the 2010 season, when Denny Hamlin won eight races and led the Sprint Cup points heading into the final event of the year, driving the No. 11 car seemed effortless. Hamlin felt like anywhere, at any time, he was a threat to go out in practice and throw down the fastest lap. The speed in his black and orange Toyota was always there, and he knew it, and confidence translated into a level of performance that almost earned him the championship in NASCAR's premier division.

What a contrast that all was to this past season, when Hamlin would often emerge from practice looking like he had just gone full-court with members of the Charlotte Bobcats. The speed wasn't there, and it took all the driver had to get that same vehicle anywhere near the front. "I've told Mike Ford this a bunch of times," Hamlin said. "I come out of the car after practice exhausted, because I'm just wringing my guts out to be 20th fastest in practice."

"There's just something that we've got to get better in, and it's not always their fault. "

--DENNY HAMLIN

Hamlin spoke those words on Thursday of last week, in an interview after the NMPA Myers Brothers Luncheon awards luncheon during Champions Week in Las Vegas, and before his Joe Gibbs Racing team announced late Tuesday that Ford -- the only crew chief Hamlin has ever had at the Sprint Cup level -- would not return next year. Hamlin and Ford had worked together for six full seasons, and earned an underrated level of success by making the Chase each year. But there were also turbulent times, none more so than the penultimate event of the 2010 campaign in Phoenix, when Jimmie Johnson stretched it on fuel, Hamlin didn't, and an opportunity to effectively clinch the championship slipped away.

Seven days later, Johnson went on to claim his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup crown, and Hamlin was lost in a fog of what might have been. The No. 11 team never seemed to get over that near-miss, suffering a hangover that stretched into this season and derailed Hamlin's chances of contending for the title again. Things grew stagnant, communication suffered, and mechanical breakdowns added to the misery of an eventual ninth-place points finish. Even so, there seemed few indications toward the end of this past season that Hamlin and Ford would be separated. Asked that very question last month at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin said there was "a very strong possibility" that he and Ford would remain together into 2012.

But management ultimately makes those decisions, and it was clear the No. 11 team needed some kind of kick in the pants, and with championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb suddenly and unexpectedly available -- well, it's easy to draw the timeline. Let's not use this as an indictment against Ford, who can be a bit of a brusque guy sometimes, but is unquestionably one heck of a crew chief. Ford almost single-handedly salvaged that No. 11 team, taking it over in the aftermath of the Jason Leffler experiment, and assembling a core group of crewmen that has mostly stayed together ever since. That FedEx team isn't always flashy, but they're always there, somewhere in the mix. During the past six years, only two drivers have made every Chase. One is Johnson. The other is Hamlin.

So no piling on Mike Ford, whose results indicate he can clearly do the job. Still, over six years, some things eventually suffer. After his speech at the Sprint Cup awards ceremony on Friday in Las Vegas, Hamlin talked about seeing all the changes swirling around the series, all the crew chiefs moving to new places, all these teams attempting to better position themselves for next season. Looking back on it now, even his attempt at patting his team on the back carried a hint of foreshadowing.

"So many teams are making big wholesale changes at this point, you've got to make changes, too," he said. "For us, we've got a great group of guys. A lot of people say that, but I know my guys are very, very capable of winning championships. Everyone from Mike, the No. 1 guy ... all of them are championship-caliber. There's just something that we've got to work out. There's just something that we've got to get better in, and it's not always their fault. A lot of these championships and races are won before you even leave the race shop. So, we're not just looking at [as], it's all one person's fault. I'm as responsible as anyone for our performance this year."

* Hamlin: Awards Ceremony speech | Driver Page & Statistics | Shop No. 11 Gear

Hamlin went on to say that his relationship with Ford was a good one, that the proof was in all those Chase appearances, and that they had to find a way to get "that communication wall" opened back up. He didn't sound like a driver who knew his crew chief was on the way out, although in retrospect maybe his comments aren't quite as specific as they might be from someone who was certain the support system around him was solid. Regardless, even going back to the final events of this past season, it seemed something was going to be done to try and help the No. 11 team take the step back up to where it had been in 2010. Now we know what it is.

"Whatever these teams do in these next two months is really going to decide who our champion is the next year."

--DENNY HAMLIN

In Ford's defense, though, Hamlin's team was caught in something of a difficult cycle. Everyone wonders why runners-up from the previous seasons often fare so relatively poorly in the next one, and the most obvious argument is that they're too willing to stand still. NASCAR is a sport where change is constant, and teams either adapt or fall behind those who do, but it would seem hard to do that if you came within one race -- one fuel-strategy call, really -- of a championship.

"I think it's tough finishing second, because you're thinking -- oh, well. We're not too bad. We're really close to being what we need. We just need to tweak a few things," Hamlin said last week. "When in actuality, you've got all these guys ... guys who finished ninth through 12th, that are wholesaling changes and making big cuts at it trying to improve the whole program. Sometimes you hit a home run, sometimes you don't."

Clearly, the No. 11 team whiffed. "I think some of it too is being complacent," Hamlin added. "I think sometimes you think, man, if we just change this one little thing, we'd be champions. Well, like right now, everyone's making these huge team wholesale changes -- they're going to beat you in two months. Whatever these teams do in these next two months is really going to decide who our champion is the next year."

Well, Hamlin's team has just made a wholesale change of its own. For a team suffering through a year-long runner-up hangover, it's cold water to the face. All the pieces haven't fit together yet, and how all this ultimately affects the performance of the No. 11 car is still to be seen. But last week in Las Vegas, the driver seemed raring to get back on the race track -- a stark contrast to the same event the previous year, when all he wanted to do was get out of town. The 2012 season is a pivotal one for a team with plenty to prove given its potential, and a crew chief change likely only adds more fuel.

"I can tell you in my head, where I'm at is, I'm more motivated for next year than I was last year during this whole [Champions] Week," Hamlin said. "I was looking more toward, let's just get past 2010, let's get on with it. This year I'm thinking, hey -- let's get on to 2012. I feel like myself and my team have something to prove. ... The fire burns in you to show you're not a ninth-place team, you're not a ninth-place driver, and that you deserve better than that. We're going to show people next year what we've got."

Watch Hamlin's 2011 highlights:

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.