Heading Into 2011: Chasing The Probable Top 12 in Sprint Cup Racing (Pt. 9 of 12)
If there's one thing that Joe Gibbs Racing breeds in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it's winners; one of those individuals who fits the billing is none other than Denny Hamlin, this past season's runner-up in the championship race.
Coming up just 39 markers short of his first title, it was a season that nearly came close to a promise made at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2009.
After winning the season finale, Hamlin vowed that the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team would come back a year later and capture stock car racing's ultimate glory.
While NASCAR racing is a sport that doesn't crown almost champions, it's one where valiant efforts to take on vast challenges happen at any moment.
Since 2006, the challenge for any Cup racer has been to dethrone Jimmie Johnson, the five-time reigning champion who's only shown a few kinks in the armor.
Ask Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, and Mark Martin about how they tried to beat the No. 48 team prior to 2010 and even drivers of their caliber couldn't defeat the Lowe's unit, even when they were at their best in the Chase.
When it all came down to title time in 2010, however, it was a high stakes battle pitting Johnson against Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, two of NASCAR's most aggressive and talented racers.
However, aggression and talent wasn't enough again to beat Johnson, with Harvick somewhat taking his defeat in stride and Hamlin - well, like a true racer.
He was bitterly disappointed at how his team's efforts, as strong as they were, didn't quite cut it for a title. After all, capturing eight wins, 14 top-fives, and 18 top-10's isn't exactly like dusting crops, or in this case, an easy task.
Sure, most observers will point to the Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix, the penultimate race of this past season.
Hamlin was on attack mode all race long, leading a huge chunk of the laps run that afternoon (190 to be exact) before fuel mileage issues relegated the No. 11 team from a possible win to a disappointing 12th place finish.
Beyond upset and aggravated, the Chestefield, VA native was at a loss of words as to how a surefire chance to capitalize on their points lead over Johnson and the No. 48 team turned to a lost opportunity by race's end.
That said, they could've easily had their points lead as just being another Chase team without a chance to compete for the title.
While one race may not completely seal a team's fate, perhaps the closest example of such was at the Nov. 7 race at Texas Motor Speedway, where cunning and courage was displayed by Hamlin and crew chief Mike Ford.
Prior to the race, the No. 11 team decided to have their pit box ahead of the No. 48, which meant they would dictate how Johnson entered and exited out of pit lane.
It may not sound like a lot to the casual racing fan, since the speeds of the cars aren't nearly as fast as on the asphalt arena.
Consider this: when you consider how much time's spent to make a lightning fast pit stop, as well as how entering and exiting pit lane is the difference in positions, it's a damn high risky proposition, just as much as racing on the track at full speed.
A slip up by the pit crew or by the driver at any point during a pit stop, be it the driver stepping on the accelerator way before the jack's been lowered or contact with another driver, are some of the ways that a team can easily lose a race and title.
Ultimately, their clever pit selection and win at Texas gave them the chance to compete and win a championship, which they came up just nearly 6-10 positions short of in terms of racing points.
With the 2011 season nearly here, there's a sense of positivity surrounding the JGR campus, especially considering how much Joey Logano developed as a Cup talent and how Kyle Busch learned to develop consistency along with his aggressive mindset.
For Hamlin and company, this will be a season where they'll feel like, next to Kevin Harvick, they'll need to elevate their game to the next level.
Does it mean more wins instead of opting to go for the best finish with an ill handling car?
Will it mean taking no prisoners, even if it means having to jostle and hustle to the front, costing teammates spots?
In other words, the 2011 season might shape up to be Hamlin's best effort yet in a Cup car, which is somewhat scary to think about considering how much talent he has shown in the past six years.
Aggression is one of this team's strongest characteristics and it needs to keep pressing on with this type of mindset if they want to contend for a Cup title this year.
There's no such thing as "gimmes" or "freebies," as any real estate on the track as well as obtaining maximum points (especially wins) is the objective for anybody on the Cup circuit, most especially the No. 11 team.
This team's reeled off excellent stops and it needs to keep up with their efficiency in servicing that Toyota all season long.
Capitalizing on opportunities is imperative for Hamlin, especially when a rival's struggling on the track or pulled out of a race. Leading laps, deciding when to push the envelope and when to just settle for what's best are also key elements in building another championship run.
Sure, this team's listed at fourth place for The Podium Finish's 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup projected points standings, which may seem like a slap in the face to this terrific force.
Ultimately, when looking at who'll improve and contend for the title, there'll be some racers and teams that Hamlin and his crew will have to battle, especially a fellow racer not too far from his shop.
Until then, it'll be an interesting to follow the No. 11 team in 2011, who just might have what it takes to win it all - or come home disappointed in dramatic fashion.