Does Denny Hamlin's strong start to the season—two top-5 finishes, including Sunday's win at Phoenix—mean he's back in top form after a rough 2011 campaign?
That's the issue at stake in this edition of Bonus Points, a weekly feature in which Sports-at-Work writers Sam Salo and Luke Krmpotich debate a current issue in NASCAR, giving their takes on the way things ought to be. Sometimes, Sam and Luke are in agreement; other times, they may have slightly differing opinions; and on occasion, they'll be at each other's throats.
Each writer will also assign a "flag" value to his opinion on the question: checkered flag if it's a slam dunk, green flag if he's mostly convinced, yellow flag if it's a toss-up, red flag if he's pessimistic, or black flag if he's dead set in opposition to the idea.
Do two strong runs prove that a driver has turned things around? Not necessarily, in my opinion.
Paul Menard has made a habit out of fast starts to the beginning of the season but fading quickly as the calendar turns to late spring and summer (though this season, he's already suffered a setback at Phoenix after a nice run at Daytona).
However, Denny Hamlin's case is different. Sure, his back-to-back top-5's (including an impressive Phoenix win) have him at the top of the standings—never a bad thing, to be sure. And it's interesting to speculate as to how the sports psychologist that Hamlin has been visiting has influenced the often morose Hamlin's outlook and attitude in general.
But there's a bigger issue in play, in my opinion. Namely, that these strong performances coincide with hiring the reigning Sprint Cup-winning crew chief to be the signal caller atop the No. 11 pit box. That fact is enough to make me a believer that Hamlin has returned to the upper echelon of the Sprint Cup elite after a one-year hiatus. Hamlin suffered from the well-documented curse of the runner-up, falling just short of dethroning Jimmie Johnson as Sprint Cup champion in 2010 and then falling into a season-long malaise last year.
I believe the Virginia native has successfully broken out of the doldrums and is better prepared than ever to potentially dominate the Cup Series in 2012. If that is indeed the case, look out: remember, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota scored eight victories in 2010 and was the best driver for much of the year. Together with Darian Grubb as crew chief—who has guided his drivers to victories in six of the last 12 Sprint Cup races, dating back to the Chase last fall—the two could form an unstoppable duo in 2011.
Nothing is certain in racing, but I like what I'm seeing from Team 11 so far this season. It's still early, but all the signs point to Hamlin returning to the dominant ways we know he's capable of.
All in all, I give Hamlin a green flag rating with regard to having arrived back at the top of his game in 2012.
Denny Hamlin's recent Phoenix victory indeed indicates that he's back. However, to take some journalistic liberties, the concept of "being back" will be modulated a bit. First off, a definition is in order.
The sports concept of "being back" usually centers around the idea of a prime figure in a sport performing to his usual standards again following an extended period of relatively dour results.
"Duh", you say.
Not so fast. That concept itself is defined by a past degree of consistently large-scale success, which in some stars' cases, wasn't actually all that present before the supposed performance drop-off. Both past consistency and large-scale success as married concepts are integral to the idea of "being back.” In some cases, the journalism touting the supposedly emergent star is a bit wonky in this underlying logic, and broad brush strokes of sensationalism are bound to be painted without realizing some core issues of reason.
With all of that said, Denny Hamlin is "back", but only in a relative fashion. He has indeed opened 2012 with a bang, scoring top-5 runs at both Daytona and Phoenix, including, of course, the recent victory in the desert. He's also led a bucket-full of laps in both races, which includes a very strong Speedweeks in general at Daytona. However, those things being as they may, Hamlin has neither been highly consistent or very large-scale in his Cup series career. He's never been horrible, of course, and he's had a sparkling year or two, most notably his 2010 eight-win campaign.
All of that said, it's more proper to moderate shouts of grandeur at the moment. Hamlin's stock may be returning to a more balanced and successful course, but his seven-year Cup career has made for a mildly volatile chart, and more consistency (starting with continued success this year) need to be had. Yes, he's back, but not in the same way that a Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart would "be back." For this week's Bonus Points issuance of colored cloth, this writer gives Hamlin...
A green flag, with a weary look or two at potential yellows.
Final combined verdict: Green flag, with both Luke and Sam largely concurring, although from slightly different points of view.
Have a different opinion? Leave a comment below!