Nearly a year ago at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Denny Hamlin and his No. 11 FedEx Toyota team made a vow that they'd be the team to beat for the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, even if that meant dethroning four-time titlist Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet.
And why not?
Hamlin's confidence in his Joe Gibbs Racing group, led by crew chief Mike Ford, had all the reasons in the world to believe that they could outperform and outmaneuver the likes of Johnson and fellow headwrench Chad Knaus.
While Johnson and his familiar blue and white No. 48 Chevy Impala have dominated the series for the past four seasons, Hamlin's black Toyota Camry has lurked in the picture in a way that it's not off the frame, but just waiting for the right moment to become the center of attention.
Aggressive, cunning, and treacherous, the Chestefield, VA native is in the midst of a career year, capturing eight checkered flags, including a season sweep of the races at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
His pit crew has been on its game all year long, particularly during the AAA Texas 500 held a few weeks ago, when crew chief Mike Ford played mind games with Johnson and Co., pitting adjacent to them to dictate their entrance and exit out of pit road.
By obstructing his path for a clear exit out of their pit box, along with solid, fast stops all race long by the FedEx pit crew, the Lowe's team found itself in a peculiar situation unlike in years' past.
Due to slow stops, Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus essentially "fired" his pit crew.
A somewhat risky decision, he elected to replace them with the "Rainbow Warriors," who have reeled off consistently fast stops all year long.
Although Johnson salvaged a top-10 finish, the biggest winner was Denny Hamlin, who took over the points lead, leapfrogging past Johnson as the Sprint Cup gang headed to Phoenix last weekend.
For most of the Kobalt Tools 500K, it appeared as if Hamlin's points lead would extend to a somewhat comfortable margin of 50 to 60 markers over Johnson, piloting a dominant mount in the Arizona venue.
However, poor fuel mileage relegated the '06 Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year winner to a disappointing 12th place result.
Instead of appearing like a man with exuberant confidence, he seemed more defeated, musing on his slender 15-point margin over the No. 48 team.
Despite doing everything in their power to get maximum results, including leading the most laps last Sunday, it was all for naught for the 29-year-old racer.
"It’s tough not to be happy with a lead going into the last race, but I was sitting pretty,” Hamlin said following the 500K race, per Yahoo! Sports' Jay Hart's article.
A driver hardly satisfied with anything but victories, his race at Phoenix was hardly indicative of his desire and determination to capture a Cup title, particularly when the Johnson Express rallied home to finish fourth after a hard charge from a 21st starting position.
Given how stout a car they had and that they were in position to win their ninth race of the season, 12th-place is basically a giveaway by Hamlin and his No. 11 team.
Now, with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Ford Championship Weekend, Hamlin has no choice but to look "forward" if he wants to make good on his word from a year ago.
Of the three remaining title contenders, only Hamlin has won a race at the famed South Florida facility, driving his way to Victory Lane, leading 71 of the 267 circuits enroute to his fourth victoy last season, while his 2010 championship rivals Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson placed third and fifth, respectively.
Can Hamlin duplicate his magic from a year ago, only this time, with greater implications on the line?
If he's able to repeat his efforts in this year's season finale, there will indeed be a new Sprint Cup champion to crown on Sunday afternoon after 400 miles of hard, intense racing.
“It’s going to be tough,” Hamlin said. Commenting on how Johnson and Harvick's consistent seasons, he added, "As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to take a win (to capture the title).”
If there's anybody in Hamlin's camp that can relate to the pressure, intensity, and excitement that will culminate with this Sunday's Ford 400 (Live, 1 PM ET on ESPN), look no further than car owner Joe Gibbs. A three-time Super Bowl championship-winning coach, he'd know exactly how special yet stressful it is to win the ultimate prize of any sport.
With guidance, confidence, and motivation, while it may take a Super Bowl effort to beat two juggernaut teams like Johnson and Harvick, if anyone's up for the challenge when the stakes are high, Denny Hamlin is surely the man to get the job done.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday afternoon, the biggest winner after the four hour season finale will have certainly earned their stripes as true-to-blue champions in America's most prestigious form of stock car racing—NASCAR Sprint Cup racing.
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