No. 11 FedEx Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
Crew Chief: Darian Grubb
Average Start: 17.1
Average Finish: 16.0
Races Led: 15
Laps Led: 450
% Laps Completed: 98.4%
Points Finish: 9th
2011 in a Nutshell
Everyone on the FedEx team knew going into last year, there was a very real possibility that the disappointing way the 2010 season ended would carry over and affect the ’11 season. But a hangover like the one they experienced, which saw a dramatic drop in wins, top-fives, top-10s, laps led, morale, points finish and just about everything else, no one at Joe Gibbs Racing saw coming.
Reasons to Believe
Every year Hamlin has run fulltime, he’s won at least one race … The engine woes which handcuffed his team a year ago, have been addressed … Darian Grubb knows what it takes to win a championship and his calm demeanor over the radio should help put Hamlin more at ease and allow him to focus on driving … On that note, Hamlin seems more focused and has finally put 2010 behind him … A reshuffling of crew chiefs at JGR will inject some new blood into a organization which has grown a bit stale … As a follow-up to the previous point, this team needed a change atop the pit box a year ago due to the continued combativeness between Hamlin and former crew chief Mike Ford … Outside of the road courses and maybe Dover, Hamlin is skilled enough to win anywhere.
Reasons to Doubt
Say what you want about Mike Ford, but the fact is, under his watch the 11 team made six appearances in the Chase and won 17 races … Of the 23 tracks which makeup the Sprint Cup schedule, Hamlin has won on only eight of them … The JGR cars didn’t have a lot of speed in’11 and there is doubt whether they closed the gap in the offseason on the Roush and Hendrick cars … Hamlin isn’t the qualifier he used to be … Mechanical gremlins plague this team and organization.
Area of Strength: Short tracks in Virginia
Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s because he’s more motivated to do well in front of his home state fans, but whatever the reason, Denny Hamlin is at his absolute best at Richmond and Martinsville. Combined, between the two short tracks, he has six wins, 19 top-10s and over 2,000 laps led in just 25 starts.
Area of Weakness: Dover
He’s had his moments, but overall Dover International Speedway hasn’t been too good for Denny Hamlin. Four times he’s finished 36th or worse on the high-banked track, and only once has he only led in the 12 races he’s started. If Hamlin wants to contend for the championship, improving how he runs at the third track in the Chase is an absolute must.
Best-case Scenario For 2012
Darian Grubb duplicates the success he had with Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin finds his confidence, Joe Gibbs Racing solves their engine and mechanical problems, and it equates to Hamlin doing what he couldn’t do in 2010, and securing his first championship.
Worst-case Scenario For 2012
Hamlin and Grubb don’t mesh, and for the first time in his career Hamlin finishes a year without a win and without being in the Chase.
In Their Words
“To stay successful, eventually you have to make change. The 14 (Tony Stewart) did it after a championship. For us, I know personally that Mike Ford is a winning crew chief and I’m not saying this because I’m trying to endorse him in any way, but I feel like he is one of the top-five crew chiefs within this garage. It was just something that needed to be done and I just feel like we have a great understanding and he is close with my family as well as I’m close with his. He is a friend to me first and he was a co-worker second. Sometimes you just have to make that change as tough as it is.”
Predicted Number of Wins: 3
The Racing Geek’s Final Thought
I like this driver-crew chief combination a lot and I think with time, they could be a force. But I’m not sure it’s going to be this year. It’s going to take some time before the offseason shakeup at JGR to take effect. However, once it does, it wouldn’t surprise me the least bit if Hamlin replicates his 2010 season, or at least comes close to doing so, and makes a serious run at the title.