Denny Hamlin has resolved to take his place in that glum procession of drivers who have seemingly had all of their essence and will consumed with the task of -- unsuccessfully -- defeating Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup championship. Since Johnson won his first of five consecutive titles, each competitor has followed the runner-up season with a subsequent tumble in the standings.
Hamlin appeared to come undone in the next-to-last race of the 2010 season at Phoenix, when he was forced to pit late in the race for fuel, ceding the lead and allowing Johnson to recoup valuable points. Hamlin, who finished 12th at Phoenix after leading 190 of 312 laps, seemed emotionally sapped as he pondered the consequences along pit road afterward, and although he recovered to make all the proper pronouncements about his momentum and mental state, Hamlin lost a 15-point lead in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami, finishing second to Johnson by 39 points.
Hamlin, who won eight times last season, has claimed victory just once this season, and instead of cruising into the Chase for the Championship as points leader, he scrounged a newly implemented wild card by virtue of his one victory. Hamlin said he couldn't identify a common trait in the runner-up hangover.
"I think everyone's reason for not running as competitive the following year is different," he said. "For us we've just honestly been stricken by a lot of bad luck. We've [run] out of fuel, we've gotten in wrecks, we've cut tires, things like that. We've blown engines, we've had mechanical parts that have failed, had so many different things that [have] bitten us this year. I can't pinpoint one reason why those things have happened.
"I personally think it's more coincidence than anything ... but we're trying to turn that around and trying to figure out a way to get back to the top-five in the points, and if we can do that, we're going to be bucking the trend."
Carl Edwards' drop from second in 2008 to 11th in 2009 is the largest since 2006 while still qualifying for the Chase. Mark Martin plummeted from second in 2009 to 13th and out of the playoff the next season. Hamlin is 12th with eight races remaining.
The 2010 experience, although ultimately unsuccessful, could help Hamlin to buck the trend, as could the alleviation of a great deal of pressure he carried as the front-runner for four weeks of that year's Chase. Hamlin admitted last year he mentally preferred the role of predator to prey.
"I think that last year I was under quite a bit of pressure," he said. "With expectations comes a lot of pressure, and being a championship favorite obviously weighs very, very heavy on your shoulders to live up to those expectations. This year we came into the Chase as an underdog. We're still obviously very much an underdog. My job ... these next eight races is to go have fun and try to win races. I want to end on a good note and be charging toward the front of the championship point battle by the end of the year.
"Whether we're going to get there or not -- I don't know. Maybe there's just not enough races for us. But if there's not, at least we want to be heading in the right direction into 2012."
According to former three-time champion crew chief Ray Evernham, the impact of fuel mileage on the 2011 Sprint Cup season in general and Chase for the Championship in particular can be traced to a succession of factors, all interlocked by the new fueling system being employed in the series and the 15-percent ethanol blend implemented this season.
"They've slowed the fueling down in the cars with this new can system, so the guys are choosing to short pit or not fill the cars up completely when they do pit, or pit before they actually need a full tank of fuel so they can still do pit stops fast," Evernham said in a phone interview. "That's No. 1: they're not filling the cars up every pit stop.
"The other thing is, this new fuel system, the 15-percent ethanol, I don't believe their fuel calculations are as accurate as they want them to be. I think they're missing sometimes exactly how much they've got in the car and I really believe the ethanol, the 15-percent mix, has drawn off some of their calculation, which hurts them that last round, when they have to make that long run."
The obsession with the 12-second pit stop prevalent under the previous fueling system -- a gravity-driven system that required a catch-can man to collect spillage -- has been in part perpetuated because of a durable tire construct by Goodyear, the parity among drivers and the current-generation race car. Evernham said all of this has reduced the amount of cautions and made track position supremely important.
"There's a whole other calculation going on there: What's the least amount of fuel you can get away with. And some are getting caught," Evernham said. "You see the further you get in the pack a lot of places, the harder it is to get up there. Absolutely. It's still the guy who spends the least amount of time on pit road [that] will end up in the front of the pack."
NASCAR should respond, Evernham said, by not responding.
"You can't go back and unlearn things, so I don't think there's anything the series can do," he said. "The two changes the series made were for safety. The fuel can takes a man away from the back of the car, which is one less man on pit road, which is one less man that can get hurt. The other [change] is the fuel cells are smaller, for fires. I don't think it's a NASCAR issue. It's about whether the guys want to gamble filling up the cars and short-pitting, getting a little bit more accurate on the mileage with ethanol."
NASCAR adjusted the positioning of one of the biggest potential potholes en route to a Sprint Cup title when it announced the move of Talladega's Chase event two weeks ahead and into the fourth slot of the 10-event playoffs.
The race trades dates (now Oct. 7) with Kansas to facilitate the repaving process there.
Some other minor date-swapping (Daytona will run a week later; Dover will run in June, not May) comprises the only major differences between the 2012 and 2011 schedules.