Four years ago, Denny Hamlin had the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship in his hands, only to see it slip through his fingers through his own mistakes and those of his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
In 2010, Hamlin won the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway to take what looked like a commanding points lead over Jimmie Johnson into the final two races of the season.
At Phoenix International Raceway the following week, Hamlin dominated, leading 190 of 312 laps. But poor fuel mileage forced him to make one extra pit stop more than the leaders, so instead of winning and virtually clinching the title, he finished 12th, while Johnson finished fifth without leading a lap.
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Afterward, during his NASCAR-mandated media availability, Hamlin looked like he’d just seen a ghost, as he was clearly and deeply shaken up by what happened.
A week later in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hamlin bounced off Greg Biffle at the exit of Turn 2 on Lap 24, relegating him to a 14th-place finish. Johnson, meanwhile, came home in the runner-up spot in the race to claim his fifth consecutive championship.
This time around at Texas, Hamlin is in a very different situation.
He doesn’t have the fastest car or the most race victories.
In fact, no one at JGR has won a Sprint Cup race since Hamlin scored his lone win of the season in the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway.
Right now, Hamlin is fifth in points, just seven points behind leader Jeff Gordon. Consistency, not speed, has gotten Hamlin this far. Still, no one mentions him as a favorite now, like they do with Gordon, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski or Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin himself doesn’t sound especially convincing as a potential champion, one of four drivers who will go to Homestead in two weeks with a chance to win the title.
"It was a lot different then — than now," Hamlin said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. "Now, I think you have to go the mentality of you have to win that final race to be a champion, but every team has that aspiration when they leave the race shop every week, but some know it’s more realistic than others. I feel like if you are part of that championship four now — you have to know that you can win if you want to win a championship."
With four years in the rear-view mirror on his 2010 run, Hamlin insisted Friday that he was off-kilter for the whole week before racing Johnson for the title back then.
"In 2010 we went in with a fairly minimal lead. I think we had to finish within three spots of Jimmie that weekend," Hamlin said. "We just had a bad weekend overall and for some reason I just never felt it that entire weekend. None of the days just felt right at all. It wasn’t nerves or anything, some days you feel it and some days you don’t."
This time around, it’s different.
"For whatever reason we’ve gotten so far now in this year’s Chase that I feel like the expectations aren’t set as high as they were in 2010," said Hamlin. "We had won so many races that year that everyone expected us to go out there and win. I feel like now we’re kind of on that house money-type thing where people aren’t expecting us to be here. Everywhere we go from here on out is a bonus and I feel like we’ve had an off-year with our race team and our cars."
And if Hamlin can somehow pull a reversal of fortune this time out, he said he will appreciate it more than he would have then.
"Everything has been not nearly as stellar as it was in 2010, so if we can somehow pull off an upset this year it will be way more gratifying than if we won in 2010 — where we kind of dominated and won all the races," he said.
VIDEO: Denny Hamlin talks about his victory at Talladega earlier this season