When NASCAR first brought its Champion's Week to Las Vegas in 2009, nobody embraced the experience more than Denny Hamlin. From his blowout celebration at the Palms Hotel featuring ice sculptures and sports celebrities to his 4-in-the-morning challenge to Jimmie Johnson that he was coming for the champion the next season, it all shaped up as a coming out party for the sport's brashest young driver cast against a neon glow.
Hamlin's return to Las Vegas this year, though, came with a decidedly different tone. He had indeed gone gunning for Johnson, and nearly gotten him, too, holding the lead for two of the final three weeks of the season before falling 39 points short of winning his first title in the sport's premier division. After a week of wallowing in heartache over what might have been, a week of watching Johnson celebrated yet again as champion was just too much. There were no blowout parties, not this year. All Hamlin wanted was to go home and turn his focus to next season.
"We only had to put up with it for two weeks," he said the night of the ceremony, "and then we get to go to work."
So now the goal becomes to finish the job, to end Johnson's streak of five consecutive championships, to reclaim a title that somehow got away from Hamlin in the last eight days of this past season. It seems natural to think that he'll be in the thick of it again next year -- after all, Hamlin has only improved as a driver in the past four years, his Joe Gibbs Racing team is deep and seasoned, and his cars were the fastest on the race track throughout the final few weeks of the just-completed campaign. And yet, at the same time he'll be trying to accomplish something that's proven very difficult in recent NASCAR history. Rare is the runner-up who ascends to the throne the next season.
In NASCAR, where the arena is highly competitive and the top contenders can be shuffled for a variety of reasons, nothing is guaranteed. We saw that this year with Mark Martin, who pushed Johnson to the final week of last season, only to miss the Chase entirely in 2010. Other drivers who have come close to a title have similarly taken a step backward the next year -- Carl Edwards stuck with Johnson in 2008 but then didn't win a race in '09; Edwards and Roush teammate Greg Biffle tied for runner-up behind Tony Stewart in 2005 but weren't in the running in '06; even Johnson, a narrow runner-up to Kurt Busch in 2004, fell to fifth in '05, suffering through a trying season that nearly fractured the relationship between the driver and his crew chief, Chad Knaus.
For whatever reason, that near-championship hangover is a tough one to shake. And yet, other competitors look at Hamlin, and see how the narrow loss to Johnson this past season ate at him only days and weeks after the fact, and envision a driver who will only be better for the experience.
"I think those guys, once they get back to the race track, they're going to be tough," said four-time champion Jeff Gordon. "Forget about what happened this year, and try to get it again. I think they're a good team and a championship-caliber team, and I think they learned some lessons. If they're smart, they'll learn how to utilize those lessons to make them better in the coming years."
Edwards agreed. "I think I know how he feels," he said. "I was in a similar situation where it was close, and I feel like if I could go back and do it again, I could win that championship. I'm sure he feels the same way. He was in a much better position than I was in. The more I learn about Denny Hamlin, though, the more I learn that he is a very, very good competitor. Whatever he takes from this, whatever pain he's going through right now, he'll apply that in the right way, and I think he's going to be more and more dangerous to all of us. I really think he's that good."
Should Hamlin unseat Johnson for the title next season, he'd join a very small circle of drivers who have vaulted directly from runner-up to champion. In all of NASCAR's modern era, which dates to 1972, it's only been done seven times -- most recently in 2002, when Stewart claimed the title after finishing a distant second to Gordon the year before. Bobby Labonte did it in 2000 after placing second to Dale Jarrett. Gordon did it in 1997 after losing a close battle with Terry Labonte. Dale Earnhardt did it in 1990 after placing second to Rusty Wallace by 12 points. Wallace did it in 1989 after losing to Bill Elliott. Elliott prevailed in 1988 after finishing well behind Earnhardt, and Bobby Allison won it in 1983 after finishing second to Darrell Waltrip two years in a row.
The lesson is a simple one -- in stock-car racing as in the stock market, past performance is no indication of future success. For whatever reason, coming close to a championship often sets back a team for the next season, something even Johnson went through in the aftermath of that inaugural Chase. No question, Hamlin is going to have to work through some issues with his crew chief, Mike Ford, particularly in light of a fuel-mileage incident in the penultimate event at Phoenix that still stews in the driver. It's very easy to say Hamlin lost the title in that one afternoon, when he was forced to pit for gas and a points lead that had ballooned to 78 was whittled to 15.
"What I can take solace in is that, sure, if our fuel mileage is better, we win a championship. I don't feel like we got out-drove, [and that] Jimmie was a better driver and that's what kept us from winning the championship. The strategy and whatnot kept us from winning it this year," Hamlin said.
"I felt like I did the best that I could, and that's all I could do. Phoenix is [Johnson's] best race track, and we went out there and we dominated it until we had to pit. To me, we really did a good job of stepping up to the plate. Unfortunately, our ball hooked foul instead of going fair and a home run at the end. It's just one of those things where we take a little satisfaction in knowing we're coming off the best year we've had, of my career. You've seen the progression since 2007 in the points from 12th to eighth to fifth to second now, and that's because every year I've learned something else, something else that makes me better. If we can get another 10 percent better next year, we'll have a great shot."
It promises to be a crowded field at the top. Johnson's championship run came in a down year for Hendrick Motorsports that prompted the organization to make across-the-board changes. Edwards won the final two races of this past season to set himself up as Johnson's primary challenger, just as Hamlin did a year ago. And then there's Hamlin himself, who wore the sting of that close loss to Johnson on his face all throughout Champions Week in Las Vegas, and will surely use it as a motivating factor in the upcoming campaign.
"He's on the edge of winning a championship," added Stewart, Hamlin's former Gibbs teammate. "It's just a matter of when."
It certainly appears that way. Even so, Hamlin will have to battle NASCAR history as well as Jimmie Johnson to win the championship in 2011. Two years ago, Edwards -- coming off a 2008 season where he won nine times and finished second to Johnson by 69 points -- seemed as sure a thing as Hamlin does now, and he's still waiting on his first championship. The racing gods are a fickle bunch. To his credit, Hamlin doesn't seem to be assuming anything about next season, only hoping that he gets another chance.
"If I put myself in that same situation next year, then I'm going to take what I learned this year and apply it," Hamlin said. "I think we'll be better for that."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.