It was, in retrospect, the most significant hire of NASCAR's offseason, one that has reinvigorated the career of Denny Hamlin.
Before crew chief Darian Grubb led Tony Stewart to the 2011 Sprint Cup title, Stewart informed Grubb that he was going to be let go at season's end. Stewart was upset with the uneven performance of his No. 14 team, and so he felt that a change of crew chiefs was needed. The news, delivered to Grubb in the middle of the Chase, caught him by surprise but -- to his credit -- he kept his mouth shut and kept building winning race cars for Stewart.
In the offseason, owner Joe Gibbs hired Grubb to sit atop of the pit box for Denny Hamlin, replacing Mike Forde. In 2010 Hamlin entered the final race of the season with the points lead, but ultimately was passed by Jimmie Johnson at Homestead and lost the championship. The sting of coming so close clearly affected Hamlin in 2011 (just as it's affecting Carl Edwards this season), as he was a non-factor for most of the season, winning only one race and finishing ninth in the final standings.
Yet with Grubb now calling the shots for the No. 11 team, Hamlin is back in championship form. He's already reached Victory Lane twice this season, has an average finish of 9.4 (which would be a career-high if he maintains his current pace) and has led laps in five of the eight races.
Hamlin is my pick to win Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway, which the Chesterfield, Va., native considers his home track. Not only does Richmond have similar characteristics to Phoenix International Raceway -- where Hamlin took the checkers earlier this season -- but also Hamlin has two career victories here and six top-five finishes in 12 career starts. Hamlin has been so freakishly fast at RIR lately that I expect him to dominate on Saturday night, leading more than half the laps and winning in a snoozer.
Here are four other drivers to keep an eye on when the green flag waves at Richmond:
1. Kyle Busch
What's wrong with Busch? A year after recording four wins and 14 top-five finishes, he's been shut out of Victory Lane, has only one top-five run, and currently sits 13th in points. He hasn't appeared comfortable behind the wheel all season, tending to lose the handling of his No. 18 Toyota late in long green flag runs. Given that there's been a dearth of caution flags so far in 2012, Bush has seemingly faded late in nearly every race this season.
Yet his fortunes could very well change at Richmond, where he has three career wins and a hard-to-believe average finish of 5.0. If Busch doesn't author a top-five run on Saturday night, it will be a sign that his problems may not be easily fixed.
2. Martin Truex Jr.
The biggest surprise thus far in the 2012 NASCAR season has been the performance of Truex, who has six top-10 finishes in eight races and is currently second in the points standings. Truex's team, Michael Waltrip Racing, clearly has made major gains and is now inching closer to joining NASCAR's ruling class -- alongside Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Penske Racing.
Richmond is not one of Truex's better tracks. In 12 starts his average finish is 24.3. But given the way he's running -- he finished second last week at Kansas Speedway -- Truex could surprise on Saturday night.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Mark it down: Earnhardt, who hasn't reached Victory Lane since the summer of 2008, is going to win a race within the next month. This season he's showing renewed consistency (six top-10s in eight races), increased concentration behind the wheel (he's no longer losing ground late on long green flag runs) and better, more detailed communication with his crew chief Steve Letarte. All of which explains why he's currently fourth in the standings.
Richmond is Earnhardt's second best track, statistically, on the Cup circuit behind Talladega (where he has six career wins). In 25 career starts at RIR, Earnhardt has three wins. He's struggled recently here -- he hasn't cracked the top 15 in his last six starts -- but expect Earnhardt to put together an impressive run at RIR in what is shaping up to be a rebound season for NASCAR's most popular driver.
4. Kevin Harvick
Though Harvick has yet to take a checkered flag this season, he's once again emerged as the flagship driver for Richard Childress Racing. He's been quietly solid in 2012, ripping off five top-10 runs and sitting sixth in the standings.
Could Harvick notch RCR's first victory of the season on Saturday night? Absolutely. He's one of the best short-track racers in the series and he won at Richmond in September. Still, this race looks like it will be Hamlin's to lose.