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Denny Hamlin 2013 preview

January 17, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

As Joe Gibbs Racing increases talent, Hamlin hopes to increase wins

Befitting a driver who competes for a former NFL head coach, Denny Hamlin loves football analogies. Unfortunately, comparisons these days don’t involve hoisting the NASCAR equivalent of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

“You don’t want to continue to be the team that wins 13 games a year and can’t win the Super Bowl,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “And we’ve been that really the last five years, probably. It feels great to win all the races and everything, but I want to win a championship. And to do that, we as a team have to get better. I’ve made my share of mistakes, too. It’s going to take a better effort by everyone.”

Denny Hamlin

No. 11 FedEx Toyota

2012 rank

6th

Team

Joe Gibbs Racing

Crew chief

Darian Grubb

Biggest change for 2013 is...

A new teammate in Matt Kenseth, who succeeds Joey Logano in the organization’s No. 20 car.

Watch out for...

The issues that scuttled Hamlin’s championship bid last season: mistakes like not getting the car full of fuel on the final stop and breakdowns like the electrical switch that sealed his fate. Gibbs drivers seem plagued by these types of things, and they need to be rooted out.

Will win the title if...

Hamlin’s talent and his car’s speed are allowed to shine through. Grubb already has one championship; things break differently, Hamlin could have two. The No. 11 team is plenty good enough this year, if it’s not derailed by failures.

2012 was...

Watch the video below for Denny Hamlin’s 2012 season in review.

Hamlin has won 22 races over his tenure at JGR, five of them in a 2012 campaign where at one point he looked ready to capture the Sprint Cup championship that has eluded him. Instead, his pursuit ended early after an electrical switch failed. For a team bitten by mechanical breakdowns before, it was a sad but familiar refrain.

Looking ahead, his focus is on ensuring similar episodes don’t derail another title pursuit. At 32, Hamlin’s window as a contender remains wide open. Even so, the shortcomings are frustrating for a driver who also suffered a near miss in 2010. So much is in his hands, and yet so much isn’t. Which is why this coming season, on-track improvement is eclipsed by more pressing matters.

“Fuel mileage and reliability are the things that kept us from winning 10 races,” Hamlin said. “Those are the two things at the forefront of Joe Gibbs Racing heading into 2013.”

For Hamlin -- and teammate Kyle Busch, who suffered three blown engines and a brake rotor failure in 2012 -- reliability is the missing link. The presence of Matt Kenseth, so hands-on during his days at Roush, can’t hurt. But Hamlin believes vice president Jimmy Makar needs some help in the quality control department. “I think Gibbs is going to put the effort in and hire more people in the offseason to ensure we have bulletproof cars from here on,” Hamlin said.

“We’ve been bitten by loose bolts, things people have control over. Do you hire a group or a team to oversee the Chase cars to make sure every nut and bolt is triple-checked? Because that’s how they do planes. You can’t self-check an airplane. It has to have a team of people to do it. Is that what we need to do to our race cars? I think that’s what we’re going to look at going forward.”

Beyond that, it’s tough to argue with the results -- Hamlin’s first season with crew chief Darian Grubb saw the driver tie Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson for the series lead in victories. When it came time to decide the title, though, Hamlin wasn’t in the picture. Trying to explain why, he reaches for yet another analogy involving his car owner’s former sport.

“Say a quarterback throws a pass to a wide open receiver in the end zone, and he drops the pass. You can’t help it,” he said. “But it’s a team sport. Even though the divers’ names are on the championship trophy, he gets all the publicity and all that, now more than ever our championships are decided by the team. It’s not as much about the driver. We recognize that and we know our weaknesses, and we’re going to work on those.”

See the full schedule of our top 12 Sprint Cup Series drivers and read more below:

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

11. Martin Truex Jr.

10. Jeff Gordon

9. Tony Stewart

8. Kevin Harvick

7. Matt Kenseth

6. Denny Hamlin

5. Greg Biffle

4. Kasey Kahne

3. Jimmie Johnson

2. Clint Bowyer

1. Brad Keselowski