Denny Hamlin has always been known to speak what he is thinking, and such was the case last season when, after the awards banquet, he announced to his friends and supporters that he was coming after Jimmy Johnson this season. That’s big talk, especially when the man you are coming after just won his fourth consecutive Sprint Cup Series title.
Over the course of the last four seasons, Johnson has endured runs by some of the best drivers in the sport to try and take the crown away from him, but to his credit he has more than met the challenge of each one. Three early wins this season seemed to have put Johnson on the fast track for a fifth title, but now it has become evident that Denny Hamlin is stepping up his game to give Johnson a battle.
Johnson had a 108-point lead three races ago, only to now find himself in second place, 110-points behind Kevin Harvick. That is a loss of 218 points in a very short period of time and, more importantly, has taken away all of the momentum from his early season wins.
Hamlin replaces Johnson as the hottest driver in the series, thanks to a streak of his own that includes three wins in the last six races. Making that streak even more impressive is that included are two wins in the last four races after he underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in his knee.
He went in for surgery after his first win of the season at Martinsville and with the following week being an open week on the schedule, he had less than two weeks to rehab his knee to the point that he could go racing. The first test of his surgically-repaired knee came at Phoenix, but he finished that race without having to call on a backup driver, and since then there has never been any doubt that once he climbed in his car on race day he wouldn’t be coming out until the checkered flag waved.
The battle for this season’s title is not just Johnson against the rest of the series; it is also a battle between organizations that would like nothing more than to replace Hendrick Motorsports as this season’s champion when the final lap goes into the books after Homestead Miami. Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields cars for Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, leads the series with four wins in the first 11 races of the season, with Busch posting the other JGR win.
Richard Childress Racing also has Jeff Burton in the ninth spot to go along with series leader Harvick, and Jack Roush Racing has three of its four in the top 12, but they all are still chasing Hendrick Motorsports as all four of its teams are in the all-important top 12. Jeff Gordon joins Johnson in fourth, followed by Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 10th and 12th.
Gordon has done everything this season except find his way to victory lane. He led 110 laps at Darlington, and appeared to be on his way to his first win of the season until he missed pit road late in the race. His domination on the racetrack is showing in the amount of bonus points he has totaled this season. He leads all drivers with 60 bonus points that are earned five points at a time for either leading at least one lap or the most laps in a race. If you are leading a bunch of laps, chances are you are going to win a race, but Gordon has only registered one win in the last 12 races that he led at least a hundred laps.
Tony Stewart’s 23rd place finish at Darlington continued a steep slide for the former two-time series champion as he was fifth in the points after Bristol but has dropped to 18th in the past six races. Making matters worse for Stewart was the recent announcement that Old Spice would be leaving as one of his primary sponsors at the end of the season. That still leaves him with Office Depot for next season, but he will have to find a sponsor or sponsors willing to put their names on his hood for just part of the season. Mobile One will be leaving Penske Racing after this season and Budweiser is rumored to be leaving Richard Petty Motorsports, making them the two biggest names out there for teams looking for a sponsor. Budweiser has already been linked to Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, as a possible primary sponsor for the 2011 season.
Autism Speaks 400. Track:
Dover International Speedway (1-mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns). Date:
May 16, 1 p.m. TV:
MRN. Defending champion: