Denny Hamlin‘s season is done.
It is? When did this happen? As soon as the No. 11 began its stuttering and rolled to a stop on lap 391, my Twitter feed exploded with the overused, “Put a fork in him!” And I wondered why NASCAR Nation decided that the Virginian gave up the ghost yet again in the Chase.
He hadn’t done anything wrong, unlike years in the past. He wasn’t sitting with his head in his hands crying, “Woe is me.” He hadn’t missed a shift on a restart, cut a tire down on somebody else’s fender or simply miscalculated how out of the groove his FedEx Toyota might have slipped. His car broke. In a rather unique way, if you think about it.
In all my years watching NASCAR, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of the master switch failing. Then again, back in the day we didn’t have gauge clusters that blinked all colors of the rainbow when the ignition system starts to freak out. The odd mechanical failure would probably have been simply called something like electrical issue.
But back to the topic at hand, as Hamlin started and stopped his way around the paperclip track, I did wonder if we were going to see somebody lose the race due to EFI. Wouldn’t that have been something to talk about? All year we’ve been waiting for the new technology to completely fail and here the engine kept turning off, turning on, slowing… EFI had a wide open opportunity to finally get some of the limelight.
But no. Instead a cracked bolt caused the master switch to fail. How plebian can you get? And wholly unforeseen. It lost Hamlin 29 points in the Chase, leaving him 49 points behind the new points leader Jimmie Johnson. Oh no! 49 points?! It’s surely an insurmountable number, isn’t it?
Don’t be silly. The winner of a race earns 46 points. He can then add another point for leading a lap and yet one more for leading the most laps. 48 points, one race. The last place team will earn a mere one point. Mathematically, this story is far from over.
Johnson might pop a tire on the first lap at Texas and slam into the wall, totalling his No. 48. Brad Keselowski is capable of missing a shift taking the green flag and detonating his transmission. I’m not talking about what will likely happen, only what can happen. Those gremlins don’t discriminate when they decide to play havoc with somebody. Any team, any race can suffer calamity. Hamlin did. Why wouldn’t the others who are eyeing that trophy with an eager eye be susceptible to such capricious luck?
Had Hamlin shown the same traits I’ve seen in prior championship runs, I might not be making this argument. He has been the one to crumble under stress in the past. We watched him try, face difficulties and simply give up.
But this is 2012. He’s a little older, a little wiser and has the calm direction of Darian Grubb on top of his pit box to keep him focused on the prize. He didn’t park his No. 11 on Sunday, instead we watched his crew dangle out the window wrenching like maniacs in order to get those precious laps and save a few more points.
That kind of determination is found on one kind of team: One who wins. They’ve done it five times this year. It’s wholly conceivable for them to make it six or seven victories before the year is out. Hamlin excels at tracks like Phoenix and doesn’t do too bad on those cookie cutters either.
Odds are all those naysayers are right and it’s not going to be Hamlin, again. But this is NASCAR. The unexpected does happen from time to time, including the improbable victor notching one on their belt from time to time and even the anointed son wrecking out of the season.
It’s November. The average NASCAR fan is thoroughly jaded from a season too long and too predictable. It is times like these we have to remember, the one reason we adore this sport above and beyond all others is that you never know what will happen; not until that final checkered flag flies.
Hamlin might have a hill to climb, but his timer hasn’t popped yet. Don’t ruin the fun for yourself. Let’s give him all the credit he and his talented No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team deserve, and just wait for the season to unfold as it will. May we all be stunned with its final outcome.
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