LOUDON, N.H. — Denny, we hardly knew you.
A new, improved Denny Hamlin climbed from his car after a disappointing runner-up finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The new, improved Denny Hamlin bore little resemblance to the zombie-like Denny Hamlin of November 2010 at Phoenix.
The circumstances on the race track were remarkably similar. Hamlin’s reactions were markedly different.
On Nov. 7, 2010, Hamlin took control of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, winning at Texas Motor Speedway and expanding his lead in the standings to 33 points over then-four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson.
A week later the series traveled to Phoenix for the next-to-last race of the season. Hamlin led 190 laps and appeared poised to lock up his first Sprint Cup title, but a strategic mistake derailed the effort. Crew chief Mike Ford called Hamlin to pit road from the lead on Lap 266 of 312, believing the rest of the contending cars also would need fuel before the end of the race.
That wasn’t the case. Driver after driver stretched fuel, and Hamlin crossed the finish line in 12th place, squandering 18 points of the 33-point advantage he had built at Texas.
A shell-shocked Hamlin climbed from his car that Sunday afternoon, visibly shaken by the miscue. The malaise lasted through the season finale at Homestead. At the Thursday press conference before the deciding race, Hamlin sat between Johnson and Kevin Harvick, the only two other drivers mathematically eligible for the title.
Johnson and Harvick needled Hamlin mercilessly, like two vultures toying with a doomed mouse.
“I knew, sitting on the stage, that the No. 11 (Hamlin) wasn’t going to win the championship, because he couldn’t hardly sit still and was so nervous going into that race that he couldn’t hardly stand it,” Harvick would say later.
And he was right. Hamlin qualified poorly, started deep in the field and spun early in the race while pressing to move forward — in effect gift-wrapping Johnson’s record fifth straight title.
The Denny Hamlin we saw after Sunday’s disappointment at New Hampshire was made of sterner stuff.
Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota was the clear class of the field, leading 150 of 301 laps and building leads as large as 5.5 seconds. But the final pit stop proved the team’s undoing. Crew chief Darian Grubb wanted to go with right-side tires only, but a miscommunication with the driver led him to believe Hamlin wanted four tires.
Four tires it was, and the extra few seconds required to mount fresh rubber on both sides cost Hamlin 12 positions in the running order. Hamlin didn’t sulk. He was up on the wheel, passing car after car during the final 62-lap green-flag run. He made up 11 spots before the end of the race but couldn’t catch winner Kasey Kahne before the laps ran out.
Rather than wallow in the disappointment of losing a race in a winning car, Hamlin found a way to accentuate the positives, taking a cue from sports psychologist Bob Rotella.
“As hard as it is to keep your emotions in check, you have to take it in stride and realize, after you pull out on pit road, go out on the racetrack, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Hamlin said. “All you can do from that point forward is figure out how to get the best finish you can that day.
“If you harp and moan on it, you’re just going to go backward. Bob Rotella has the key: think forward, not about anything bad that just happened.”
If THAT Denny Hamlin — the new, improved version — had made an appearance late in the 2010 season, Johnson’s title streak probably would have ended at four.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.