As the green flag drops Sunday at Phoenix, Hamlin will be back at the track where, for all intents and purposes, he lost last season's championship. Hamlin entered the next-to-last race of the Chase with a 33-point lead on Johnson and looked poised to leave Arizona with a 43-point edge, making it nearly impossible for Johnson to catch him. But a fuel miscalculation cut that lead to 15 points and the rest, they say, is NASCAR history as J.J. claimed his fifth straight title.
As NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said "you can't win unless you learn how to lose." So maybe that meltdown was Hamlin failing How To Win A Title 101, taught by professor Johnson before he can come back and earn his own PhD. Then there's the possibility that once you get as close as Hamlin did and lose the heartbreaking way that he did, it's not so easy to just put it behind you.
Whether the problems were psychological, mechanical or karmic, Hamlin didn't deliver the kind of statement at Daytona's Speedweeks that let NASCAR Nation know he's moved on. From being black-flagged in the Shootout for going below the yellow line as he tried for the win to his steering locking up during Daytona 500 qualifying, spinning out during the second Duel and getting caught up in a Tony Stewart-induced mess in the 500 that sent him from a top-10 finish to 21st, things seemed to snowball from one setback to another as the chic pick to win the Cup title left Daytona frustrated.
But there was a positive for Hamlin to take with him to Arizona and beyond. Despite those agonizing results, Daytona has long been Hamlin's Achilles' heel -- his 22.9 average finish is his worst of any track during his Cup career -- and yet he should have won the Shootout, and was threatening for the checkered flag in both the Duel and the 500 before fate intervened. Not only did Hamlin show improvement on the biggest hole in his resume (restrictor-plate tracks, where he has a combined five top-10s in 21 starts), he did it by bouncing back from a cavalcade of issues. It wasn't the message a trip to Victory Lane would have been, but it was a revelation nonetheless.
We've long learned we can't make too much of Daytona in the grand scheme of a Cup season. Only eight times has the 500 winner gone on to win the series title, with Johnson the last to do it in '06. But in each of the last four title years, he's had to rebound from 39th, 27th, 31st and 35th at Daytona to claim the championship. Hamlin now finds himself in a similar situation, despite underlying progress at Daytona, and his challenge carries the weight of having to recover from a series of misfortunes and do it on the track where he saw the title slip through his fingers last season.
A February trip to the Arizona desert won't give us a firm idea of just how much last season is weighing on Hamlin; that's a question we'll have to wait until the Chase to truly answer. But whether he can quickly turn things at Phoenix International could go a long way toward convincing us he's ready to exorcise the demons of his collapse.
None of Daytona's winners -- Trevor Bayne in Cup, Tony Stewart in Nationwide and Michael Waltrip in Trucks -- are currently leading those series' points standings, those designations belong to Carl Edwards (Cup), Landon Cassill (N'wide) and Todd Bodine (Trucks). To make things even more confusing, Edwards finished second in the Daytona 500 and sits atop the Cup standings, yet he never even led a lap.
It's bound to confuse the casual fan, which NASCAR CEO Brian France was no doubt looking to bring back with this preseason announcements that the sport would be going to a points system that rewarded 43 base points to a winner down to one point for the 43rd finisher and that all drivers had to declare which series they would be competing for the title.
Before we prematurely start calling the new system a failure, we do have to consider this anomaly -- and that's exactly what it is given a 300-1 shot, one who isn't even currently slated to run a full Cup schedule, won the biggest race of the season -- was a risk NASCAR ran with its new rules. France and Co. have to live with the fact that after one race, no race winner sits atop any of the points standings. It's just part of it considering the desire to build for the future by giving Nationwide and Trucks series drivers a chance to expand their profiles in title race.
A month from now, order will certainly be restored in each series, it's just too bad that after Daytona, which saw ratings rise 13 percent from a year ago and a Cinderella story for the ages, critics have something else to gripe about.