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Hamlin still waiting for it to be his time

December 11, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Denny Hamlin had a strong car at the penultimate race at Phoenix but saw his title hopes end when a master switch failed. (Getty Images)

After 2010 disappointment, electronics failure ends another title run

The biggest problem with dodging bullets? At some point, the bullet is going to find its target. And that's exactly what happened to Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway.

A master control switch broke, knocking out the electronics to Hamlin's Toyota -- after he had twice driven back through the entire field on NASCAR's smallest, tightest race track after a pair of pit-road speeding infractions -- and wrecking any chance Hamlin had of erasing the bitter memories of his close-but-no-cigar title run in 2010.

Hamlin came into Martinsville in third place, 20 points behind Brad Keselowski and expecting to do no worse than keep pace in the Chase. So to have it happen at a track where Hamlin had won four times -- and hadn't finished worse than 12th since 2006 -- was difficult, particularly since it seemed Hamlin's car was the class of the field.

"Just when these things happen, you've just got to suck it up and move on."

--DENNY HAMLIN

Denny Hamlin

2012 Statistics
WinsFirst 26Final 10
Top-Fives113
Top-10s134
Poles21
DNFs40
Laps Led899327
Avg. Start11.014.3
Avg. Finish12.613.3

Hamlin summed it all up in his post-race comments that day.

"It ended in disappointment, but we overcame the pit-road penalties and things like that and just had a great car," he said. "Just when these things happen, you've just got to suck it up and move on. There's nothing I could do about it. So, one of these days it's going to be our time, it's just not going to be right now."

Hamlin and the entire Joe Gibbs Racing team seemed particularly snake-bitten by mechanical gremlins all year, but Martinsville proved to be the most costly failure of the season. And it's something that Hamlin thinks needs to be addressed during the offseason.

"We've got to get a plan together," Hamlin said. "We're going to try to figure out going forward where we're going to send this Joe Gibbs Racing program.

"Obviously, I think at the forefront is reliability, whether it's different inspection processes that we're going to go through, hiring different people just for Chase -- to overlook the cars -- whatever it's going to take to make sure our cars are bulletproof from here on out. That's a priority."

When he wasn't in the garage, Hamlin was a force with which to be reckoned. He led 57 laps and finished fourth in the Daytona 500, then followed that up with a victory at Phoenix. He won the pole at Fontana and won the race at Kansas, then scored back-to-back second-place finishes at Darlington and Charlotte.

He won Bristol and Atlanta and very easily could have made it three in a row at Richmond if not for a rain delay that wrecked his pit strategy.

"It's frustrating because you look at our finishes, and it just bounces between good and bad every single week," Hamlin said after the fall race at Kansas. "I was talking with [crew chief Darian Grubb], and we've got to figure out a way to minimize that. We've got to figure out these fuel issues that keep bugging us every single week."

Fuel mileage played a huge role in Hamlin losing the 2010 championship to Jimmie Johnson, and it's something he thinks will continue to be a difference-maker in future Chases.

"The way the tires are now and [with] these new paved race tracks, fuel mileage is going to continue to decide our champion," Hamlin said. "It didn't totally decide it this year, but it was a huge factor, simply because there's not as many wrecks any more and these green-flag runs we're having that are so long, fuel mileage is going to be key."

Adversity. It's something Hamlin has been forced to come to grips with, and if anything, 2012 has shown that he's acquiring the maturity necessary to deal with it, and find a way to overcome it.

For Hamlin, growing as a driver means working continually to turn his liabilities into strengths. Once he achieves that, Hamlin figures he and his equipment will be able to deflect anything shot in his general direction.

"I always have to learn and keep up with what I have to do," Hamlin said. "One thing I knew in 2010 and 2011 that I had to work on was qualifying. We greatly improved that this year. I think Darian helped with that quite a bit. I think me studying the things I needed to study [helped me get better]. It's just the results don't always show that. It's a matter of time.

"If we keep coming to Vegas, eventually we're going to be in the No. 1 spot."

Watch all of Hamlin's highlights from 2012 and flip through his year in photos below.