Wounded knee put Hamlin's season in flux

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Ten days after having reconstructive surgery on his damaged left knee, Denny Hamlin went to Phoenix in April with a driver on standby just in case his knee couldn't hold for the entire race. Casey Mears patiently sat atop the pit box almost the entire race, waiting for the call to relieve the hurting Hamlin.

Only it never came.

Hamlin gutted out the entire race, even after a bad pit stop dropped him two laps down, and he finished 30th.

To many, it was a bonding moment for Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team. When everyone expected him to quit early, Hamlin stepped up, proving to the No. 11 team that he was willing to fight through the pain to finish the race.

Turns out, the JGR guys didn't view it that way.

"A lot of people talk about how that was a big weekend, a big motivator for us, but I don't know where that comes from," crew chief Mike Ford said. "It was the worst weekend ever. It just sucked from the word 'go.' Before we even got there, we knew it was going to suck. So it sure wasn't motivational for me running like crap."

It was a time of flux for the No. 11 team, which opened the season as the popular pick to dethrone Jimmie Johnson.

With a no-nonsense crew that operates fairly isolated from the rest of the Sprint Cup garage, Ford had no interest in the attention that came with Hamlin's rising-star status. The team wasn't impressed with Hamlin's new lifestyle – the Charlotte, N.C., nightclub, a new friendship with Michael Jordan, the offseason trip to Los Angeles to "explore the Denny Hamlin brand" – and when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a January game of pick-up basketball, well, it was the last thing they needed.

Initially, Hamlin opted to postpone surgery until after the season was over.

When the season began, Hamlin got off to a deathly slow start. He was winless through the first five races, didn't have a single top-10 finish, led only 39 laps and was 19th in the points. The saving grace was the upcoming trip to Martinsville, where he's surpassed Johnson as the driver to beat.

But in the middle of the race weekend, as his team prepared for what it hoped would be the win that would turn their season around, Hamlin announced he was going to have surgery to repair his knee the day after the race.

The season was for sure over now, said the skeptics, and even after Hamlin indeed won at Martinsville, the number of people who believed he still had a championship in him were dwindling.

When he arrived at Phoenix International Raceway, a mere 10 days after surgery, he could barely walk. Hope of him challenging Johnson for the title was all but gone. That is why staying in the car seemed like such a monumental, morale-building gesture for his beleaguered team.

Hamlin could have gotten out of the car when his alternator began to fail. The fix required a lengthy stay on pit road, and in Ford's haste to keep Hamlin from falling a lap down, he sent the car back out before the new batteries had been properly installed.

Now down two laps, there was little point in Hamlin staying in the car. Everyone watched and waited for the driver change.

Everyone except the No. 11 crew.

"In the history of race car drivers, until they pass out, they aren't getting out of the car," Ford said. "He definitely had to suck it up, though, and to do it, it showed some toughness, and some mental toughness on his side.

"Maybe if it was a racing injury, we'd have viewed it differently. But that's what he had to do that day."

Seven months later, the circumstances are far different as the Sprint Cup Series returns to PIR. Hamlin comes in with a 33-point lead over Johnson in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He's healthy and in the driver's seat for his first career NASCAR championship.

Hamlin's confidence is soaring following last weekend's win at Texas, and his race team isn't backing down from the four-time defending champion or third-place driver Kevin Harvick.

That doesn't mean, though, that anyone thinks they've got the title in the bag.

Ford says both Johnson and Harvick are better at Phoenix than they are, and the statistics back it up. Johnson has four wins at Phoenix, including the last three Chase races when he essentially wrapped up his titles. Harvick has two wins and six top-10s in 15 starts, but only one top-10 in the last five races there.

Hamlin's numbers aren't exactly shabby – he is winless in 10 career starts, but he's got six top-10s and four third-place finishes. But they weren't easy.

"We have to work our guts out to get that. It doesn't come natural," said Ford, who expects to lose ground to Johnson and Harvick this weekend. "That's why to take the points lead last week was important. This week there is potential to give up a little bit. The natural hope is that the three of us are running together all day and at least finishing together.

"If we can do that, then we feel a lot better going to Homestead, and that's a race Jimmie hasn't had to run in quite a while."

Johnson has essentially had the championship locked up by the time he's gotten to the season finale the last four years, and he's needed only a safe run to seal the deal. That likely won't be the case this year. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that both Hamlin and Harvick are very good there. Hamlin is the the defending race winner, while Harvick has finished second and third there the last two races.

This has given an added layer of confidence to the No. 11 team that, should they need to race for the title next weekend, they know they will come out swinging.

That's the way they want to win this championship. It's not about that long day at Phoenix in April, or even the win the following week at Texas, a race that the team took much more from than they did watching Hamlin limp around Arizona.

Instead, this is about going door-to-door with two other drivers and proving they are the best team in the NASCAR.

"It's fallen into place perfectly," Ford said. "We're loose, we're confident, we're performing at a high level and we're ready to be the upsetter at the end of the race in Homestead."