On a mission

When someone is given a mission, you will find most times they are determined and focused to make it happen. The really good ones find ways to overcome all obstacles and complete the task they were assigned. Even though we only have two of our 36 races in the books so far, I can tell you there are a bunch of drivers, crew chiefs and teams on a mission.

The most obvious example I can give you were those two cats in Victory Lane Sunday — Denny Hamlin and Darian Grubb. It’s no secret that I am a big Darian fan. He’s neither the flashiest crew chief out there nor the most vocal; he simply goes to work and succeeds.

In our last 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup races, the 10 Chase races and the two so far in 2012, Darian has been in Victory Lane six times as the crew chief of the winning car. If that wasn’t enough, he has now done it with two different teams.

As I’ve said before, it says a lot about Grubb’s character that he knew he wasn’t returning to Stewart Haas Racing in 2011, but his only focus and mission was to help Tony Stewart win the championship. After the season was over and the split had taken place, Darian wasn’t acrimonious about it. He took the high road and wished the No. 14 car well.

Now Darian’s on a mission to show everyone there’s a reason why he is the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup championship-winning crew chief. He had his new driver, Denny Hamlin, running well at Daytona. Denny was very aggressive and came home with a great top-five finish there.

I think the pairing of Darian and Denny is perfect because Denny is also laser-locked on a mission — a mission of redemption. You all know the story — in 2010, Denny was the talk of NASCAR. He won eight races and took the points lead late in the Chase, only to see the championship slip through his fingers.

As good as the No. 11 car was in 2010, it was equally as dismal in 2011. Having been there and done that, I can tell you the emotional toll 2010 took on Denny in 2011 cannot be overlooked. Denny won one race last year. It was nail-biting time to even make the Chase, but they did. Once that goal was accomplished, however, the No. 11 car was a non-factor in last year’s Chase. They limped home to an overall ninth-place finish last year with only one win, five top-five finishes and only 14 top-10 finishes.

Last year is over, however. Crew chief Mike Ford is gone, and Grubb is in. Denny and Darian can prove to be a powerful combination this year. Both have the same goal, and what each guy brings to the table can set the No. 11 car up for a spectacular 2012.

If you need further proof, simply look at the statistics. Last year as they headed to Las Vegas this weekend, the No. 11 was 14th in the points, no wins, no top fives and no top 10s. Now they are leading the points. They already have a win under their belt, plus two top fives and two top 10s. My, what a difference a year can make.

Denny’s teammates are also on a mission. This is a contract year for Joey Logano. He unfortunately hasn’t lived up to all the hype that surrounded him when he came into NASCAR’s top series. So he’s on a mission to prove he deserves to be here. He has a new crew chief as well.

Then there is Kyle Busch. For all his God-given ability to win in anything he sits behind, he still hasn’t been able to translate that into a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. I spent time with Kyle last year and again at Daytona. He gets it. He knows he has to control his emotions. Being parked by NASCAR at Texas following the Ron Hornaday incident in the truck race really did get his attention.

He has a full plate being an owner in the Camping World truck and the Nationwide series, but he is on a mission to win that one thing that continues to elude him — the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

I like the new combination of Kevin Harvick and Shane Wilson. These last two seasons have been really good for that No. 29 car, but they seemingly could never put it all together and win the championship. So crew chief Gil Martin moved on, and Shane is now calling the shots for Kevin. I’ve always liked Shane. I think he is a sharp guy, and I think the combination of he and Kevin will be a powerful one as well.

I also believe you are seeing the No. 48 on a mission. On the Big Picture front, they were finally knocked off the top of the mountain. So you know they are on a mission to get back there. On the Short Term front, after everything they went through in Daytona, you have to suspect they have something to prove, too.

Let’s face it, Daytona was U-G-L-Y for them. Their crew chief and car chief were suspended for six races. Crew chief Chad Knaus was also fined $100,000. Then owner Rick Hendrick and driver Jimmie Johnson were each docked 25 points. Sunday’s race at Phoenix was only the second time since 2007 that a driver started a race with negative points. Now if all that wasn’t enough, Jimmie gets wrecked out of the Daytona 500 on the start of the second lap.

So it was no surprise to me to see them come to Phoenix last weekend on their own mission. Early in the race they were easily the fastest car. Unfortunately problems continued for that team on pit road, and that set them back. They overcame it, though, and came home with a fourth-place finish. Jimmie is still buried deep in the points back in 37th position, but the good news is that top-five finish jumped him up 12 positions.

I believe we will see the No. 2 and the No. 22 on a mission as well. Last week came the announcement that Penske Racing is going back to Fords in 2013. I think Brad Keselowski and AJ Allmendinger will be out to prove that they are anything but lame-duck Dodge teams. Their goal is to win races and get both Dodges in the Chase.

Within all that, Allmendinger is on his own personal mission. As the new driver replacing Kurt Busch, he wants to prove to everyone, especially Roger Penske, that he made the right choice.

How about Mark Martin winning the pole for last Sunday’s race? Mark’s 2011 season pretty much mirrored Denny Hamlin’s to a certain extent. For all the success Mark enjoyed in 2010, the magic just wasn’t there in that No. 5 car in 2011. So Mark is off to a great start in 2012 with his partial schedule. In just two races he has a pole position and two top-10 finishes this year. Heck, in all of 2011, Mark only had 10 top-10 finishes in 36 total events.

Kurt Busch is another who is on a mission in 2012. The end of 2011 found Kurt publicly humbled and on the outside of his second top-tier NASCAR team. Now he is trying to rebuild his career with the No. 51 car, driving for a small organization. He ran up front at Phoenix, and I just know Kurt is on a mission to make that car a weekly threat.

The list can go on and on. Folks are more determined than ever. I think having one year under their belts with the new points system and the new way to qualify for the Chase has finally sunk in to everyone that they have to go and go now. Sitting around and expecting it to come to them is no longer an option.

So from Mission Control here in Franklin, Tenn., I’ll keep an eye on things as we head to Las Vegas and see who the big gamblers are this weekend. I’m excited to see who hits the jackpot Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.