|Denny Hamlin is on a roll|
A lukewarm 10th in the championship standings, Hamlin had two wins to his credit; at Phoenix International Raceway in early March and Richmond International Raceway in April. Since then, however, the pickings have been decidedly slim. Like Tony Stewart a year before, Hamlin and his Fed Ex Toyota team laid stagnant at the bottom of the Top-10, unable to secure any sort of momentum or championship vibe.
Today, just three weeks later, Hamlin is the hottest hand in NASCAR. Echoing Stewart’s late-season surge of a year ago, Hamlin has rocketed to the top of the contenders list with back-to-back wins at Bristol and Atlanta, including a Sunday night victory snatched from the jaws of a dominant Martin Truex, Jr. and desperate, multi-time champion Jeff Gordon. Sunday's Atlanta win gave the No. 11 team its mojo back and made Hamlin the provisional top seed for the 2012 Chase, which begins just two weeks hence at Chicagoland Speedway.
All of a sudden, Hamlin has become impossible to ignore.
"I drove in the corner way beyond my talent level those last couple of laps,” admitted Hamlin after Sunday’s race.“It shot me up the racetrack, got me out of line and gave (Gordon) the opportunity. I knew how desperate he was, but I knew that we could notlet him win. It was critical for our team to not let Jeff get a win.
|Hamlin's team was the difference Sunday|
No matter what happens in Saturday night's regular-season finale at Richmond, Hamlin will share the point lead at the start of the Chase. That’s a worst-case scenario, however, and with Hamlin’s track record at RIR, there is hope for much, much more. The Fed Ex Toyota driver has visited Victory Lane twice at the Commonwealth oval in just 13 career starts, and has finished in the Top-5 more than 50% of the time.
After hoisting the Sprint Cup trophy a year ago with Stewart, crew chief Darian Grubb is in championship form yet again. His over-the-wall team is performing at its absolute peak, dispatching Hamlin from pit road with the lead after a sizzling “money stop” during the final caution period at Atlanta. The engine problems that plagued JGR earlier this season have been resolved, as well, eliminating the only glaring weakness in Hamlin’s 2012 championship resume.
A win Saturday night at Richmond makes Hamlin the undisputed point leader with 10 races to go, and with a hot streak unprecedented in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career, he appears poised to finally claim the championship that so narrowly eluded him in 2010.
“The pit crew won me the race tonight,” said Hamlin Sunday. “That's what a championship team is all about; having all those pieces put together.
“And this year, I think we have it all.”
Photo: John Harrelson/Getty Images