Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick and their respective crews have worked tirelessly and fought valiantly to get to Ford Championship Weekend ready to contend for the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Along the way, all three men had critical turning points to their seasons, times that changed the directions of their programs and helped get them where they are today.
When they line up for Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead, Hamlin will start the race with a lead of 15 points over Johnson and 46 on Harvick. Here are the key events that brought each man to this place:
DENNY HAMLIN — There’s no question that Hamlin’s turning point came in one of his worst races of the year, a 30th-place finish at Phoenix International Raceway. But what was significant about that race wasn’t where Hamlin finished, but that he finished at all. That race was just 10 days after Hamlin had arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The fact that Hamlin showed the toughness to stay in the seat of a wretched race car while in obvious pain established him as a leader on the team.
“To be honest with you, I would have been too embarrassed to give Casey (Mears, Hamlin’s relief driver) the car I had today,” Hamlin said after the race. “It’s not what we’re accustomed to.”
Despite the pain and despite the poor car, he and his Joe Gibbs Racing squad bonded on that day.
“I got a lot of encouragement from the team,” Hamlin said. “Through thick and thin, we’re a team. I feel like they’d give their left leg for me and do everything they could do to make sure we were successful, and I felt like it was my duty and my job and that’s what I’m hired to do, is to try to do the best I can and keep this team as good as we can.”
The rest of the team noticed, too.
“Here's a guy that had surgery and we're all prepared to get him out of the car because we knew it was going to be tough for him to make it,” said team owner Joe Gibbs. “He refused to get out of the car and stayed in there knowing we weren't going to have a good day. And I think that said a lot to his team and all the guys around him, and I think from that point on is kind of where — I think that had a lot to do with our year.”
JIMMIE JOHNSON — Ever since NASCAR switched from the rear wing to the spoiler after the first five races of the season, Johnson and his familiar No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet haven’t shown the dominance that they have in recent years. In fact, this is the first time since 2005 that Johnson hasn’t come into Homestead-Miami Speedway with the Sprint Cup points lead.
Nevertheless, he’s still very much alive in his quest for a record fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. And his season had one critical moment where he salvaged a top-five finish from potential catastrophic failure: On the night of Oct. 16 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the track where Johnson has six points race victories.
Johnson spun his No. 48 Chevy at the exit of Turn 2 on Lap 34, looping all the way around but keeping the car off the wall. The spin caused a tire to go down on Johnson’s car and after he pitted, he got a second flat dropping him all the to 37th-place and looking for all the world like he was going to have a long, miserable evening.
Afterwards, Johnson acknowledged that he was fortunate to work his way back, given that his championship hopes would have been all but over had he not rallied.
“We just couldn’t give up,” said Johnson. “I hate that I spun out. I’m kind of proud of the fact that I didn’t hit anything because I did a lot of driving out the side and in reverse and turning the wheel and a bunch of stuff trying to keep it off the fence.”
KEVIN HARVICK — For third-place Harvick, the turning point actually began in 2009, when team owner Richard Childress and the rest of the team realized they were headed in the wrong direction, technically speaking, and set about totally rebuilding a fleet of about 60 cars.
You could say Harvick’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway in April, which broke a 115-race winless streak dating back to the 2007 Daytona 500, was certainly a milestone as well.
But the big event of his season came when he won the Aug. 15 Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, historically one of Harvick's worst tracks and a place where Richard Childress Racing hadn’t won in 20 years.
Harvick’s victory at Michigan was proof positive that the team could win anywhere, not just on the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. And it meant they could win on their weak tracks, too.
“To come to Michigan, be able to run the way did today, after the way we've run here the past three years, this shows how far the organization has come as a whole, not to mention the fact that Kevin did a great job today running the high line all day long,” Gil Martin, Harvick’s crew chief, said after the race. “It takes a lot to do that here, to make that happen. Everything that happened in the pits today, the engines, the cars, I can't say enough about the whole organization.”
“One of the best things that we all went through last year was the fact that I realized everybody didn't like losing as much as I did and we all wanted to achieve the same goals,” said Harvick. “We were headed in the right direction to do those things. I think it's just coincidental timing.”
Michigan was the definitive statement that RCR indeed was back to championship form.
“When you look at the statistics, you look at the situations, all the things that you take from a year ago, it's hard to believe,” said Harvick. “But it's from a lot of effort and from a lot of people doing their jobs, making changes on Richard's part, me trying to do things differently. ... It's a huge, huge, huge undertaking. For me owning a race team, I understand that. It's hard to fathom how big that turnaround is when you really get into looking at it.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.