It's almost time for Joe Gibbs to bench Denny Hamlin

Monday July 29th, 2013

Slip sliding away: Two more crashes haven't helped Denny Hamlin's bad back or his Chase chances.
John Raoux/

Earlier this year at a Washington D.C.-area fundraiser, former Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs mused about the importance of having a healthy Robert Griffin III at quarterback for this upcoming season. "You've got to have somebody underneath that center that can get the job done," said Gibbs, who won three Super Bowl titles with the Redskins in the 1980s and early '90s. "We'd like to think it's all coaching, but I want to tell you the truth: It's not."

One of the areas where coaching does come into play is in determining whether a player is too hurt to remain in the game. The Redskins dove into a murky pond of second-guessing last season with some of their decisions involving Griffin, and it remains one of the NFL's hot topics of debate this preseason. At some point, it is up to the coach to protect the player from his natural competitive instincts and tell him, "Sorry, you have to sit out and get healthy."

Gibbs, who left coaching in the NFL two decades ago to become an equally successful NASCAR team owner, might be getting close to that point with one of his drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing. Denny Hamlin has been playing hurt this entire Sprint Cup season with back pain caused by bulging discs, a situation that worsened in late March when he fractured a vertebra in a wreck at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Hamlin sat out four races after that accident, and since his return as the quarterback of the No. 11 team, he simply hasn't been able to get the job done. After a brief period of optimism when he posted consecutive top-five finishes at Darlington and Charlotte in May, Hamlin has fallen significantly off the pace. His 18th-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday was actually his best showing in his last six races. Over his previous five starts, he had an average finish of 29th, including two that ended with back-jarring wrecks.

Something is wrong with the No. 11 team, and all signs point to the health of the driver, who has admitted that he is constantly enduring some level of pain and is in need of surgery. There certainly doesn't appear to be anything wrong with the JGR organization. Despite a few engine problems earlier this season, JGR as a whole has performed well enough that Matt Kenseth has won four races and Kyle Busch two. Both drivers are in the top 10 of the point standings.

Hamlin, meanwhile, is winless and mired in 25th place with almost no chance of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. In order to have any shot at claiming one of the two wild card berths, he needs to win at least one, and probably two, of the six remaining races before the Chase field is set. That is an unlikely prospect for someone who is no longer running in the top 10. And even if he somehow managed to pick up two wins, Hamlin would still need to be in the top 20 of the points, and he currently is 111 away from 20th.

Hamlin has maintained that he has no plans of giving up his seat in the No. 11 car this year, which is an understandable reaction. No driver ever wants to voluntarily leave his ride. There is always the chance that next week could be the one when things turn around. There is always the possibility that the season could be salvaged with a late victory or two.

But there is also the possibility that Hamlin is just one more hard hit away from doing additional -- and possibly long-lasting -- damage to his back. He is only 32 years old and can easily be competitive for another decade or more. Provided he is healthy.

The Sprint Cup Series returns to Pocono Raceway this coming weekend, a place where Hamlin has excelled over the years. Four of his 22 career Sprint Cup victories have taken place at the track, and his average finish there of 10.5 is third-best among active drivers (behind only Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon).

So give Hamlin one more week. Let him go to one of his best tracks and see if he is capable of turning things around. But if he putters to another middle-of-the-pack finish, then it might be time for Gibbs to step in and send his star to the sidelines for the rest of the season. It's not an easy decision to make (just ask the Redskins). But it is probably the smart decision.

Power Rankings

1. Jimmie Johnson (1st previously) -- At New Hampshire two weeks ago, Johnson's car failed post-qualifying inspection and he had to start in last place. He finished sixth. Then on Sunday at Indianapolis, the No. 48 crew scuffled through a 17-second final pit stop that dropped Johnson from the lead. He had to be content with finishing second. Is the team simply inventing ways to keep Johnson from getting bored?

2. Kevin Harvick (2nd) -- Harvick's string of nine consecutive top-10s came to an end at Indy, where he finished 19th. Still, one bad race is not enough to offset the impressive run he has been on for nearly three months.

3. Matt Kenseth (5th) -- Kenseth's fifth-place finish at Indy gave him consecutive top-10s for the first time since Talladega and Darlington in early May. Consistency has been the only question mark this season for Kenseth, who has won four times.

4. Kyle Busch (4th) -- If Busch were half as successful in Sprint Cup as he has been in the Nationwide Series this year (eight wins in 15 starts), he would be battling Johnson for the points lead. Instead, while he remains one of the best drivers in the Cup series, his ability to win the championship remains in question.

5. Clint Bowyer (3rd) -- Bowyer barely maintained his streak of consecutive top-20s -- which has now reached 15 -- with a 20th-place showing at Indianapolis. Not only is he winless this season, he's led only a single lap during the past 11 races.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th) -- It was another solid but unspectacular run by Earnhardt, who wound up sixth at Indy, but never really threatened to win (thanks in part to a wheel issue early in the race). He has finished between fifth and 15th in each of the past five races and in eight of the past 12.

7. Tony Stewart (8th) -- If Stewart had not run out of gas two weeks ago at New Hampshire, he would be on a stretch of six top-fives in eight races. As is, he has still jumped from 22nd to 11th in the point standings since mid May and is in good shape to at least grab a wild card spot in the Chase.

8. Carl Edwards (6th) -- Edwards somehow is in third place in the points, even though he has only three top-10s and one top-five over the past nine races. He will make the Chase, but right now there is no indication that he will do much in it.

9. Kasey Kahne (unranked) -- In many ways, this has been a disappointing season so far for Kahne, who recently endured a seven-race stretch in which he managed only one top-10 finish. But he might be turning things around. He was third at Indy and has finished 11th or better in four of the past five races.

10. Martin Truex Jr. (unranked) -- I easily could have gone with Jeff Gordon (seventh at Indy) in this position. Truex finished 11th and Gordon is five points ahead of him in the standings. But Truex has been a bit stronger over the past six races (average finish of 13.2, to Gordon's 16.7), and he has a victory during that span while Gordon remains winless this season.

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