Denny Hamlin's partnership with crew chief Darian Grubb began with a strong fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500, his best finish in seven starts in NASCAR's most prestigious race. It's a bonus-like performance for Hamlin, who understands the real work in rebounding from a disappointing 2011 season begins Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.
"[There's] not much that we can do to build our relationship at Daytona," Hamlin said. "We're not working on handling as much. It's when we get to Phoenix and those other racetracks where things are going to be different.
"The way he makes changes to the car will be different from what I'm used to. That's where the transition period is going to be for myself and Darian."
Hamlin's attitude toward the Daytona 500 is typical among drivers. It's the race they all want to win more than any other, but it's not an indicator of how they'll run the rest of the season.
"I think the Daytona 500 weekend, in general, has no relation to how guys typically run for the championship," Hamlin explained. "This [Daytona] is a total different race from what we race most of the time. For us, our season starts five or six races in. That's when we know where we stand as far as competition is concerned. We want to be competing for race wins at that point when we're at intermediate tracks, short tracks."
Hamlin was a victim of expectations -- his, those at Joe Gibbs Racing and those of the media and fans -- a year ago. He made the Chase and won at least one race for the sixth straight season in Sprint Cup and was ninth in the championship. For most drivers, a season like that would be celebrated. For Hamlin, it instituted a winter of change. He'd won eight races and competed for the championship in 2010. By comparison, the 2011 season felt miserable.
"The more intense I was in 2011, it almost was a bad thing because my expectations were so high for myself," Hamlin said. "In 2011, the next thing you know, you're struggling to run 15th and you lose all confidence. When I got in the race car and I knew that I was going to finish no better than 10th on that particular day, there is no way you an be successful with that kind of outlook."
Gibbs released Mike Ford, Hamlin's sole crew chief for 17 victories and 223 Cup starts, and hired Grubb, who crew chiefed Tony Stewart to the championship last year and, replacing the suspended Chad Knaus for six races, was on top of the box for two Jimmie Johnson wins including the Daytona 500 in 2006.
Hamlin and Ford had grown close, but they recognized it was a necessary move for both to go forward. They've discussed it at lunch and dinner.
"Mike reached out to me and said there were no hard feelings," Hamlin said. "He knew that a change was needed for both parties. It was a relationship that had run its course and it was successful. To stay successful, eventually you have to make a change.
"I feel like he is one of the top-five crew chiefs (in Sprint Cup). He is a friend to me first and was a co-worker second. Sometimes you have to make that change as tough as it is."
Hamlin also took time away from racing over the winter, spending it in Arizona and playing golf. His game got better and the relaxation allowed him to recharge and refocus for 2012.
"It's what I needed to do," Hamlin said. "I felt like I would perform better getting away and doing what I needed to do to get motivated again rather than [saturating] myself with racing in the offseason like I have been."
Hamlin didn't rise to the challenge in the 2010 finale at Homestead-Miami. He qualified 37th, finished 14th and Johnson finished second to take the championship for the fifth straight season.
Conventional wisdom last season was rampant that Hamlin hadn't mentally recovered from the devastating defeat. It was reinforced when Hamlin said he was seeing sports psychologist Bob Rotella in September. Hamlin says it's a myth. He needed faster Toyotas and more dependable engines more than he needed a better attitude.
Hamlin told the
"People make a big deal out of this whole Bob Rotella thing. I saw him twice. Twice. In a two-hour period," Hamlin said. "It's not like I'm seeing the guy weekly and I've got serious problems. But, basically, it was how excited am I supposed to be? Or, how am I not supposed to hang my head when we run like absolute [junk]?"
Hamlin's competitive consistency fell dramatically from 2010 (eight wins, 14 top-fives, 18 top-10s) to 2011 (one win, five top-fives, 14 top-10s).
"Outlook and confidence are very underrated within our sport, and I feel like as much as I had in 2010, I had that small amount in 2011 because we weren't as competitive," Hamlin explained. "Our cars weren't as fast. Our cars weren't as reliable, but it forced me to work on a lot of things that I needed to work on so when we do get that package back together, we're going to kick a lot of ass.
"I know that I took things for granted in 2010 ... I felt I didn't need to work on my technique as much. Anyone will tell you that when you don't have the best stuff possible, it forces you to step up, and now that I feel I've gotten better, my cars have gotten better and we're going to be a force to be reckoned with."