Denny Hamlin had seven Sprint Cup starts and one full season in the Nationwide Series when Joe Gibbs Racing hired him to drive its No. 11. It became one of the shrewdest decisions by any NASCAR team in the past decade, perhaps ranking only behind Hendrick Motorsports' choice of Jimmie Johnson.
Hamlin has made the Chase and has at least one win in all of his five seasons in Cup. He had eight wins and finished second in the championship race last year to Johnson, a season that included an early season knee operation.
Some in NASCAR nation view how Hamlin lost the title, allowing a 33-point lead with two races to slip away, as defining of the entire season. They believe the No. 11 team faded so badly under pressure that it will damage its cohesion and confidence in 2011.
There were those who wondered if Johnson would ever win a title after finishing second in '03 and '04 and fifth in '02 and '05, his first four seasons. Johnson was frustrated in the same way Hamlin is going into this season.
Hamlin returns with Mike Ford, the only crew chief he's had in Cup. They have that in common with Johnson and Chad Knaus, too. There is every reason to believe the No. 11 driver and team will be better this year, maybe enough to push them over the top against Johnson.
"I'm ready to go," Hamlin said. "I feel as confident as we've ever been. Every year we've steadily made a progression toward the top and obviously had a career year last year. We know we can do it and we can win at all different types of race tracks. For me, I think we have everything in place. I'm keeping all my key personnel from what we had last year. No changes there. Pit crew is the same. The driver will be a little bit better."
If there was a year when the Hamlin/Ford partnership should have fallen apart, it was after '07. Hamlin finished third in his rookie year of '06, but followed it up by coming in 12th. Since then, he's been eighth, fifth and second in the final points standings. That's how you build momentum and deep-rooted faith in your program.
Hamlin knows not everybody believes that he'll be challenging for the title in November.
"I'll be honest with you," Hamlin said, "I think going into 2010 there were probably more expectations than what there are for myself this year. I think everyone is expecting a letdown year and, obviously for me, I know it's not an option. I'm excited about the challenge. There's fuel there constantly -- whether I would've won the championship or not -- to be on top of the sport."
The toughest period mentally for Hamlin last year was the 12 days after the Homestead-Maimi finale and the awards banquet. "You had to relive it though media for two weeks after the season," he said. "As soon as I was done with Vegas and was able to shut the TV off and stuff, it was just focus on this year.
"It was like, 'Now it's 2011. I don't have to think about 2010. I don't talk about it anymore. I don't have to talk about it anymore. We can just move on.' For me, that became the point in which I said, 'Now, I've got to get out the books. I've got to get out the tape. Now, I've got to do homework on what I can do better because I'm no different from the race car that needs to be worked on and needs to be fine tuned. I've got to get better in different areas. [The team has] been working hard at the shop and I've been working hard at home."
Hamlin has not heard about '10 for the last time. The subject will be raised this season by media, discussed on message boards and on radio and television shows. If Hamlin meets the high burden of improving on last season, they'll say he learned and got tougher from losing the title. If he slips, they'll say he hasn't bounced back from the disappointment. It's a fair subject, but all factors should be considered in reaching conclusions. Comparisons to teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano should be made, along with the performance of other Toyota teams.
"It's always championship or bust," Hamlin said. "But, for me, if I don't win the championship, then I've taken a step back because I finished second in points [in '10]. If I finish third, how am I going to consider that a successful year? I just took a step back from where I was last year. For me, there's only one spot to move up and I'm going to go into this year with a whole lot more knowledge of what I need to do and what I need to work on from this point forward.
"I think that the advantage that I have probably over Jimmie or Kevin [Harvick] or any of those guys is I'm in my sixth year. I'm still learning a whole lot about these cars and things like that. Those guys have been in the sport for 10 years. They've had a lot of opportunities. I've had two legitimate shots to win a championship in the first five years of my career. There's a lot that I've learned and it's all about making sure that I execute that and do the things in my head that I know I need to do."
Johnson will be champion until somebody dethrones him. He deserves that respect. Hamlin is next in the line of succession. Sprint Cup needs a head-to-head rivalry that spans across several seasons. This is it.