Rise and Fall
According to mythology, the phoenix is a bird which has the ability to be reborn from its own ashes. For Denny Hamlin, Phoenix International Raceway proved to be both a place where his championship fires were stoked and where his championship hopes began to turn to ash.
In April, Hamlin finished 30th but his gutsy decision to stay in the car despite intense pain from recent knee surgery galvanized his No. 11 Toyota team and eventually led to a series-high eight victories. In November, the small amount of racing fuel needed in Hamlin's tank near the end of the next-to-last race of the year ultimately proved to be the bitterest pill to swallow in what up to that point had been a season of sweetness.
"It's not just about the fastest car and best driver. There's a whole lot that goes into this sport and that's what makes it as good as it is. We'll just keep fighting and get 'em next year."
Hamlin tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a pickup basketball game in January. But after putting up with the pain for two months, he realized he couldn't put off the surgery any longer. Ten days later, Hamlin climbed into the car at Phoenix with relief driver Casey Mears standing at the ready.
Despite issues that put him two laps down, Hamlin gritted out the entire 600-kilometer distance, earning him respect from competitors, teammates and boss Joe Gibbs.
"He refused to get out of the car and stayed in there knowing we weren't going to have a good day," Gibbs said. "And I think that said a lot to his team and all the guys around him. And I think ... that had a lot to do with our year."
Hamlin won the next weekend at Texas and kept on winning all season, including twice in the Chase. And for much of the race at Phoenix, it appeared he would carry a huge points advantage into the season's final race.
However, in the span of less than a minute, Hamlin went from being all but crowned the 2010 champion to suddenly having to face the reality that a 15-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson wouldn't be enough at Homestead.
"I felt like we've been the best car over this Chase and we might not win it," an almost disbelieving Hamlin said after finishing 12th at Phoenix.
Unfortunately for him, Hamlin proved to be correct when Johnson snatched the points lead away by finishing second to Carl Edwards at Homestead, as Hamlin got caught up in an early race incident with Greg Biffle and eventually wound up 14th, 39 points short.
"When we got in that incident on the back straightaway, it tore up the front and knocked the toe out and obviously the car did not drive as well for the rest of the day," Hamlin said later. "We just tried to patch it and work on it the best we could but it just wasn't the car that it was at the beginning."
Once he stepped from the car at Homestead, Hamlin said he was already in the process of putting 2010 behind him and concentrating on 2011. And part of that plan is continuing to improve as a driver and as a team.
"Obviously coming this close is tough, especially the small, little things that could have changed the outcome of this Chase in one lap," Hamlin said. "That part of it hurts, but that's [why] you've got to get better at all aspects and I feel like that's where [Johnson's] team has been strong over the last few years. They really have no weak spots.
"We know there are several parts of our car, there are several parts of our team, that we can improve on, and that's a good thing, because as competitive as what we are right now, I know I need to get better in qualifying. I said that last year at this time. There's lots of things that I could do to be better and there's lots of things that we can do as a team to be better."