Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2012 season, as predicted by the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR staff – Jay Hart, Jay Busbee, Nick Bromberg and Geoffrey Miller. The countdown will conclude Feb. 17 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.
No. 9: Revealed Tuesday, Feb. 7
2011 finish: 9th
Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 9th
• Jay Busbee: 10th
• Nick Bromberg: 10th
• Geoffrey Miller: 8th
Crew chief: Darian Grubb
Offseason action: Replaced long-time crew chief Mike Ford with Darian Grubb.
2012 outlook: Is parting ways with Mike Ford the answer?
In his six Cup seasons, Denny Hamlin has only known one crew chief – Ford. Together, they won 17 races, were 6-for-6 in qualifying for the Chase and very nearly ended Jimmie Johnson's title run at four.
It's the" very nearly" part that's the issue.
Despite their success together, the two could not get past blowing the 2010 championship with a poor pit strategy in the penultimate race of the season (at Phoenix). The hangover from that one lasted all of 2011 when Hamlin went from Johnson's biggest challenger to a field filler in the Chase for the Championship.
Something had to give and in December it was Ford.
"We were at a point that we felt like we needed to just go a different direction," team president J.D. Gibbs said.
That direction is Darian Grubb, who unexpectedly found his way to the unemployment line despite helping Tony Stewart win five races in last year's Chase en route to a third Cup championship. While Stewart made the decision to part ways with Grubb before he began his epic title run, it's nonetheless bizarre to see a crew chief packing fresh off a championship.
Stewart's itchy trigger finger is Hamlin's gain, not to mention the entirety of Joe Gibbs Racing. Remember, before joining up with Stewart-Haas, Grubb was viewed as one of the bright young minds at Hendrick Motorsports, a knowledge base JGR is sure to tap into.
Ultimately, though, success will depend on Hamlin getting himself straight. He started seeing a sports psychologist this past season, which only further fuels talk that he's still not mentally right after the Phoenix debacle. Ford's departure makes for one less reminder of that nightmarish day, but will that alone be enough for Hamlin to finally get over it?
Point of interest: Hamlin had just 14 top-10 finishes in 2011 – the fewest of his career – but seven of those came in the season's final 13 races.
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