At the start of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season many thought that Denny Hamlin had the best chance to unseat Jimmie Johnson in his quest for an historic fifth consecutive championship. Indeed, eleven races into the season it looks like the denizens of media centers around the circuit were right.
After winning Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, Hamlin has now won three of the last six races. No one else except Jimmie Johnson, who also has three wins, has won more than one. Hamlin is driving better than he ever has and has matured into a thinking race car driver. He no longer panics if he isn?t leading in the middle of the race. He?s more patient and is able to wait for the right opportunities to advance his position.
But a close look at the numbers reveals some interesting things. Outside of the three wins, Hamlin has only one other top five finish, and no top tens. In two of the seven finishes outside the top ten he was not on the lead lap. In fact, in the previous three seasons Hamlin had more top fives and top tens at this point in the season than he does this year.
Over on Jimmie Johnson?s side of the ledger, in addition to his three wins, you?ll find two top fives and two top tens and three DNF?s, two of those caused by crashes and one due to a ?rear axle?. Of all the races he finished, Johnson was on the lead lap in every one.
Denny Hamlin?s win this week at Darlington moved him up one spot in the points to sixth, only 54 points behind second place, Johnson. But he is 164 points behind leader Kevin Harvick.
The last thing I want to do is sit at this keyboard and make a prediction about the outcome of the 2010 NASCAR season and pretend that I know who will win the championship. It?s much too risky. Just look at Saturday?s race at Darlington.
What if Jeff Burton had not run over the air hose as he left the pits? The stop-and-go penalty he subsequently served eliminated all chances for him to win instead of Hamlin. What if Jeff Gordon hadn?t been the victim of an unfortunate yellow flag that trapped him in the pits and removed all chances for him to win? What if Jimmie Johnson hadn?t been in the wrong place at the right time and been missed by Allmendinger?s crashing car?
Call it karma, call it coulda, woulda, shoulda, call it anything you want but the fact is a race team can be doing everything right and have a victory snatched away in a millisecond. And just as easily could have a victory dropped into their lap from out of nowhere.
I?m not taking anything away from Hamlin?s win by pointing these things out. A win is a win and the record book doesn?t show the circumstances of how that win came about. But the difference in a championship season is usually made by the team who can take a car that?s not capable of winning on that day and still make a decent finish. Take a race car that?s a lemon, and make lemonade.
Can Denny Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs race team do that this year? Maybe, maybe not, it?s too soon to tell. Can Chad Knaus and his 48 team do it? Most assuredly they can.
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