Welcome to From the Marbles' 2014 season previews. Here's how we think the Chase will shake out in this first year of 16 drivers and eliminations. Will we be right? Unlikely, but it's fun to think about our soothsaying possibilities until the green flag waves for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 23.
Driver: Denny Hamlin
2013 Finish: 23rd
2013 Highlight: It's the final race of the season and Hamlin's win at Homestead. It was a performance that we had to wait nine months to get from the No. 11 guys.
The 72 laps that Hamlin led were the second-most laps led of any race in 2013, and he had by far the fastest car of the final segment of the race when most everyone else's eyes were trained on Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team.
2013 Lowlight: The Homestead win was the perfect metaphor for Hamlin's season. With the back injury, he was the distant third of three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers and even when he was back, he was overshadowed with Matt Kenseth's performance and Kyle Busch's constant speed.
But even without the back injury he suffered at California while racing Joey Logano for the lead, Hamlin wasn't making the Chase. If you take his points average from the 32 races he participated in and extrapolate it to a full 36 race season, Hamlin doesn't move up a single spot in the standings.
At the time of the injury, it was fun to speculate if Hamlin could make the Chase by getting into the top 20 with a win or two or three. It was soon evident that wasn't going to happen. Seven of Hamlin's eight DNFs happened after he returned from the back injury.
Why is Hamlin here? Because we think last year was a giant aberration. Plus, the mojo that Hamlin has had in previous years returned with that Homestead win. "Momentum" and all of its related cliches can be overrated, but a season-ending confidence boost is exactly what Hamlin needed to get back into the Chase and championship relevancy.
Plus, the last time that Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, he finished third in the standings. We all know that once something happens, it must happen again, right?
How could Hamlin not be here? The Toyota engine gremlins haven't disappeared and he becomes the unlucky one. (Though it's worth noting Hamlin was basically a test team for Busch and Kenseth late in the season.) Or Hamlin keeps crashing a lot again. It's going to take something similar to last year for Hamlin not to crack the Chase.
He's finished in the top 12 in his other seven full-time seasons. We'll go with the history of seven over one.
Best Winter Olympic event: While we can't see Kenseth as a ski jumper, Hamlin has been working on his core strength since the back injury. We think he can hold the perfect ski jump position the best of anyone in the garage.
Worst Winter Olympic event: Have you seen the lumbar flexion that many speedskaters put themselves through, especially in the long distance events? Hamlin's back doctor would not approve of trying a 5,000 meter race.
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