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Year in Review: Hamlin never gained momentum in 2011

December 16, 2011, David Caraviello,

Year in Review: After runner-up season, Hamlin never gained momentum in 2011

It was supposed to be the season Denny Hamlin finished the job.

It was supposed to be the season that the No. 11 team made up the few points that separated it and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson after the previous season, one in which Hamlin held the lead in the standings entering the final race, but let it get away. It was supposed to be the season when Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford made up for the small mistakes that cost them a title in 2010, when they made everybody forget about the fuel stop at Phoenix that let Johnson back in the race, when they ended the longest continuous run of championships in Cup Series history and earned equal bits of revenge and redemption all at the same time.

"Eventually you've got to turn the corner and think about the year that we're in, and we just never got that momentum going."


WinsFirst 26Final 10
Top-5s 41
Poles 00
DNFs 20
Laps Led 39258
Avg. Start 15.820.3
Avg. Finish16.115.7

That was the way it was supposed to be, at least. The reality was much more harsh: a campaign in which the 2010 series runner-up plummeted to an eventual ninth-place finish, but not before falling much lower in the standings and requiring a wild-card entry to make the Chase. Yes, he won a race, yes, he made the Chase for the sixth straight year -- only Johnson can claim that -- yes, he ran much better toward the end of the season and set himself up for a promising 2012. But all in all it was a frustrating, maddening season for Hamlin, capped by the release of his crew chief this week.

"It was a season where we never had any momentum," Hamlin said. "It would be easy to say there was a hangover from 2010, but when did it ever end? Eventually you've got to turn the corner and think about the year that we're in, and we just never got that momentum going. So it's not like we had a slow start. We just had a slow year in general."

It started out in a sleepwalk and just kept stumbling along. Hamlin managed only one top-10 finish in his first eight starts, a sluggish beginning that left him tumbling to 21st in points, and led many wonder if making the Chase -- much less contending for the title -- was a long shot for the previous season's runner-up. At Fontana the fifth week of the season the engine blew, foreshadowing a year where the No. 11 team would battle mechanical issues on a regular basis.

A runner-up finish at Richmond, Hamlin's home track, seemed to help shake off some of the doldrums. Hamlin went on to record top-10s in four of five starts beginning with that event in the Virginia capital, and climbed back to the fringes of Chase contention. It would be Hamlin's best stretch of the season, and after a hiccup at Pocono he claimed his lone victory of 2011, holding off Matt Kenseth on a closing five-lap sprint at Michigan in late June. Suddenly he was ninth in points, with a victory that bolstered his wild-card hopes, and all seemed right in the No. 11 team's world. Everything was possible again.

* Video: Watch Hamlin's speech from awards banquet

"My goal is still to get in the top five in points," Hamlin said after the victory. "If I wouldn't have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we really could be possibly fighting for trying to lead the points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind, it's going to be tough to do that. My realistic goal is top five in points."

And yet, there was something that put a damper on that weekend, too. On that previous Friday, NASCAR had confiscated the oil pans of the three Joe Gibbs Racing cars for failing to meet inspection requirements. Some reports indicated that they may have been heavier than allowed, in an attempt to add weight to a certain part of the car. Regardless, the next week NASCAR fined all three Gibbs crew chiefs -- including Ford -- $50,000 and put them on probation for the remainder of the year. It seemed a mere footnote at the time, but Hamlin believes it led to officials clamping down on his team a little, and hampered what his crew could do to the car.

"We were going in a really, really good direction until the oil pan thing happened," Hamlin said recently. "You look at it, that's right when our performance went backwards. I think we got looked at a little bit closer for the rest of the season because of those incidents. Our crew chiefs were on probation, and it was just a long end of the year after something like that happens. It was just a big hoopla. We know what we need to work on, and it's just tough having crew chiefs on probation the last half of the season."

From that point on it was a struggle, with results lurching all over the place. When Hamlin returned to Michigan in August, he finished 35th and fell back to 14th in points. Facing missing the Chase altogether, he gutted out must-have top-10s at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond, the final three events of the regular season, and slid into the playoff as a wild-card in the 12th and final spot.

Could he flip the switch and make another run at Johnson? No. Hamlin finished no better than 16th in his first four Chase starts, and seemed pinned at the bottom of the playoff standings like his firesuit was made out of lead. Although his performance improved over the second half of the Chase and he scored a top-five finish at Martinsville, he was never a factor in the title hunt. Hamlin did manage to move up to ninth place in the final weeks, but it was little solace to a driver who had entered the season hoping for so much more.

Denny Hamlin: Notes-n-Nuggets

• 31 years old from Chesterfield, VA
• Finished ninth in his sixth full-time season
• Qualified for the Chase in all six seasons
• Top 10 in the championship in five seasons
• Finished a career best second in the Championship in 2010
• Started the Chase in 12th, qualified for the Chase as a wild card driver by winning at Michigan
• Best championship ranking during 2011 was eighth following Las Vegas
• Only season win came at Michigan in June, scored eight wins in 2010
• 17 career wins
• Season Numbers: 1 win, 0 poles, 5 top-5s, 14 top-10s, 450 laps led, 2 DNFs, finished on the lead lap 26 times, average finish of 16.0, 15.7 during the Chase
• 2006 rookie of the year

"We never really picked up the pace," Hamlin said. "There was never a moment where, OK, we're past last year, this is what we've got this year and we're starting to move forward. We just never hit that spot. Not that we never got over last year, we just never had that performance to really back up what we had."

Watch all of Hamlin's highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below: