I don't usually take a rooting interest in Cup races, so I was a bit surprised to find myself feeling a bit sorry for Denny Hamlin after his mistake late in the race at Fontana last Sunday.
Leading with 60 laps to go, Hamlin got the jump on a restart and slid to the inside. But he hadn't cleared the right, front fender of Juan Pablo Montoya. The contact sent Hamlin's car spinning into the infield and into the end of the pit wall down in Turn 1. Once his crew repaired the damage to his car and got him back on the track, Hamlin had missed 25 laps. He only got to run a few more before NASCAR black-flagged him for failing to maintain the minimum racing speed. His 37th-place finish knocked him from sixth to ninth in the Chase standings and all but ended his chances to win this year's championship.
It was what it was: a mistake. They happen all the time in NASCAR. But I couldn't help thinking back to January, when I was in Charlotte for NASCAR's preseason media tour. On the night we visited the headquarters of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin had been open and earnest about his desire to take over the team leadership role that had been left vacant when Tony Stewart jumped ship to start his own team. Sure Kyle Busch had won the most races for JGR in 2008, but Hamlin was the elder statesman, of which he was well aware.
"If you are going to be the senior driver, you can't act like you are 12 years old," he told the Associated Press. "It's not going to be on Joey [Logano] to make this race team better right now. It's not on his shoulders. It's going to be on me and Kyle to make this team better and make it a championship-caliber team. We're going to focus on the things we need to work on, and get our butts back in the shop the weeks we have issues we need to work on to meet with department heads and tell them. I think we leaned a little too much on Tony to do that for us in years past."
Lo and behold, nobody stepped up for JGR in 2009 more than Hamlin. He was the only driver in the organization to make the Chase, and he entered it with a full head of steam. He ran off 10 top-10 finishes in the final 12 races of the regular season, including victories at Pocono and Richmond. When the drivers came to New York to meet the press on the eve of the New Hampshire race, Hamlin was the group's master of ceremonies -- poised, confident and, seemingly, raring to go.
He finished second at Loudon the next Sunday, but his 22nd-place finish the next week at Dover -- never one of his favorite tracks -- was enough to scratch him from my list of top contenders. I thought it was clear by Week 2 that the title was going to come down to a dog fight between Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin. But Denny had at least acquitted himself well the next weekend with a fifth-place finish at Kansas.
It would be a shame if Hamlin's killer mistake at California were to weigh too heavily on him. He fulfilled his goal of being a leader on his team this year, and he did it playing against a team with a stacked deck -- the close relationship between Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing has created a six-car team, one that draws on the expertise of a trio of Cup champions, as well as the most experienced driver in the sport.
Far from a flop, 2009 was a season of success for Hamlin. Too bad he won't have a championship to show for it.
3.5: Average finish for Juan Pablo Montoya (third in the Cup standings) through the first four races of the Chase
3.5: Average finish for Mark Martin (2nd in the cup standings) in the Chase
3.75: Average Chase finish for overall leader Jimmie Johnson
ESPN's Ryan McGee posted this photo -- about which there are almost too many disturbing things to count -- to his Twitter account the other day. The ladies were on hand for NASCAR's Hall-of-Fame ceremonies last Wednesday as part of the reception in honor of Dale Earnhardt.
It's hideous, I know ... and yet I ... can't ... look ... away.