Impact Analysis: Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing

by C.J. Radune on April 18, 2008 @ 16:06:22 PDT


Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin is off to a good start, presently sitting sixth place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. He came into the 2008 season with some lofty expectations. This is his third full season racing in the Sprint Cup Series, and he is coming off back-to-back seasons in which he has made the Chase.

He has two powerhouse teammates in Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch to go along with a Toyota engine package that is perhaps the strongest in the field. Some drivers have crumbled under the pressure to capitalize on similar advantages, yet Hamlin has been able to meet the challenge head-on.

A young driver, with the typical intensity of a 27-year-old, Hamlin has a lot to prove to himself, his team and his fans. In his first full season, he broke onto the Sprint Cup scene with a bang, picking up a win in his first restrictor plate race in the Budweiser Shootout. That year, he finished third in the Cup points standings. He survived the dreaded sophomore slump by producing another solid season, making the Chase and finishing respectably in 12th place.

How a driver, and specifically Hamlin, deals with the more difficult early seasons in their career can often indicate their future potential. Hamlin has seemingly been unfazed by the typical struggles drivers have early on in their careers. That can be attributed to Joe Gibbs Racing, but Hamlin's maturity has led to his early success. There are no signs that Hamlin's slowing down, which should lead to a huge future in the Cup Series.

Year-by-year comparison

Hamlin had a strong start to his career. His first full season in the Sprint Cup resulted in a third-place points finish. He finished that year with two wins, eight top-fives and 20 top-10s. As with most young drivers, his performance dipped in his second season. However, a 12th-place points finish is nothing to be disappointed with.

How does 2008 stack up against his prior seasons?

Table: Hamlin's first eight starts (2006-08)

Laps Led

By numbers alone, Hamlin is having his best start to a season. He had been knocking on the door for wins all year and finally made the breakthrough in the Goody's Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota's have continued to build on their abilities with the new car from 2007, and all three of their drivers have been working well together so far. This is contrary to what many questioned prior to the season's start.

Changes for 2008

By far the biggest change in Hamlin's third season was the decision of JGR to change manufacturers, going from Chevrolet to Toyota. In the '07 season, Toyota struggled to be competitive and make races. They finished the year with one pole and one driver, Dave Blaney, ranked among the top 35.

However, during 2008 preseason testing they showed near dominance, consistently putting up some of the fastest times on a variety of track types. Toyota's turnaround came from the decision of JGR to switch camps. A championship winning team that was already on top of the new car made JGR an extremely valuable coup for Toyota. The team's ability to develop and collaborate made an instant impact on the Toyota program. The lessons learned from 2007 also contributed to the jump in performance.

Mike Ford has been Hamlin's crew chief since his first start in the series and has been an integral part of the team's success. In addition to Ford's impact on the team, JGR has many talented individuals stationed in various departments. Engine builder Mark Cronquist put in some very long hours prior to the season's start. His efforts building the new Toyota engines for JGR was perhaps one of the team's biggest advantages.

Cronquist worked on Chevrolet engines for a number of years and was pleased to find the Toyota teams working together, whereas Chevrolet teams only collaborated on future engine evolutions. His ability to work with Toyota and the teams who ran the engines in the prior season obviously paid off. JGR teams were consistently among the fastest in the field during preseason testing and have carried over that speed through the season's first eight races.

The impact of engineer Ronnie Crooks to Hamlin's and JGR's success this season can not be understated. Crooks is a shock specialist whose role became infinitely more important with the transition to NASCAR's new car design. Not being able to rely on aerodynamics to provide grip, the teams needed to hone in on providing mechanical grip that would be adjustable during the race. Crooks has been acting as a liaison between the Toyota teams in order to foster collaboration with setups, and his efforts have helped all the Toyota teams take a large step forward. JGR has had three cars near the front of the field at every track this season, which has proven that they can find setups that work for the new car.

The results of Toyota Racing Development, the other Toyota teams and these specialists have made an impact on the track. Toyota, while third in the manufacturer standings, is just seven points away from the lead with two wins. That jump in performance from last year has contributed greatly to Hamlin's performances this year. He has been in position to win more than the one race, and had it not been for some unfortunate luck (Bristol Motor Speedway), he may be in Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards' shoes with more than one victory.

Fantasy outlook

If Hamlin can keep his bad luck at bay he should continue to be a contender at most races. His starting average this season has been 13.6 with an average finish of 12.1. His current streak of three straight top-five finishes, or four straight top-10 finishes, is pretty impressive. JGR will need to continue to stay ahead of the curve in engine as well as chassis development, but with drivers Stewart and Busch as his teammates, Hamlin will have plenty of fresh ideas when finding a setup becomes difficult.

Fantasy owners have to be pleased with Hamlin so far and most likely will become more enamored with him as the season moves along. As far as the rest of the season goes, making it to Victory Lane before Stewart with the new engine and car was a huge step, considering Stewart was a preseason favorite to win the championship.

If Hamlin can continue to capitalize on chances, he should top his career-best two wins from the '06 season on his way to another top-five finish in the championship.

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About C.J. Radune

Radune has been a KFFL contributor since January 2008.

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