After all this time, after all those championships, Jimmie Johnson still has stark memories of the one that got away.
Johnson won eight races in 2004 but lost the Sprint Cup championship to Kurt Busch by eight points in the first year of the Chase format.
During the weeks leading to this season’s final race and in the days leading to the Sprint Cup awards banquet last week, Johnson brought up that failure several times. He would go on to win five straight titles, of course, but that first oh-so-close run remains near the front of his memory banks.
The same is likely to be true for Denny Hamlin, who came within a race of winning the title this season only to see Johnson pass him on a final, difficult day at Homestead. Hamlin entered the race with a 15-point lead but lost control of his car racing for position early in the event and never really recovered.
Hamlin seems committed to learning from his mistakes and making them pay off, much as Johnson did.
“We can take a little satisfaction in knowing that we’re coming off the best year that we’ve had,” Hamlin said. “We’ve seen progression since 2007 in points from 12th to eighth to fifth to second now. And that’s because every year I’m learning something else that makes me better. If I can do just 10 percent better next year, we’ll have a great shot.”
Hamlin pointed out that competitors in other sports often fall just short of the brass ring.
“It’s just part of sports,” he said. “There are many teams and many people who have been very, very close to the top and not get it in the first try. This was really our first shot at being near the top and having a chance to win. If I put myself in that same situation, then I’ll take what I learned this year and apply it.”
Hamlin’s day at Homestead went dark when he made contact with Greg Biffle and slid onto the infield grass. He corrected the car, but there was enough damage to put him in the pits for a while. Despite rallying, he spent the day chasing Johnson, ultimately making a futile run at the championship.
Hamlin’s wreck resulted from a three-wide situation on the track with Biffle and Paul Menard, but Hamlin said he wasn’t aware he was in a three-wide mix at the time. It wasn’t like he made a dangerous move that backfired, he said.
“I saw the highlight after the race, and then we went back and listened to the team radio,” he said. “I heard, ‘Two wide.’ It was the 98 (Menard} that came up high at the last minute and forced the 16 (Biffle) to move down.
“I didn’t know it was three wide at that point. There’s really not much I could have done differently.”
Although Hamlin said his team will approach 2011 a little differently, additional testing probably won’t be on the schedule.
“We were very competitive this year, and we probably tested the least of any Chase guys,” he said. “Mike (crew chief Mike Ford) felt it was important to keep guys fresh to keep from making mistakes. Every time in the past when we had a test, we ran really bad the following week.
“We changed our outlook and said we aren’t going to test unless we have to. That worked out good. I think we had competitive cars.”
Hamlin will be spending Christmas with family members. It’s unlikely the holiday will match Christmas 1988, when Santa wedged a new go-cart down the Hamlin chimney.
“I ran go-carts in 1988 for the first time, and the one I had was really crap,” Hamlin said. “We really didn’t have any money, but my parents hid the new one in the dining room and told me to go look. It was a new go-cart. From that point, I was competitive in go-carts.”
Soon, he was driving stock cars.
Now, he hopes to drive one a position better in 2011.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.