Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was one of a handful of favorites to win the 2013 Sprint Cup championship before the season started. That changed when Hamlin suffered a fractured vertebrae in the fifth race of the season when he crashed while battling Joey Logano for the win at Auto Club Speedway.
Hamlin then sat out the next four races of the season while Mark Martin and then Brian Vickers filled in. Upon his return to the car Hamlin had 16 races to try to make up the points needed to get into the top 20 and also earn a few wins to grab a wild card spot and make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup still. Many thought this was very doable and that he was not out of the championship picture.
He started off with a runner-up finish at Darlington and followed that up with a fourth at Charlotte and he moved from 31st to 24th in the points. It looked like he was on track to make the Chase. But then a hard crash at Dover was a set back for the team and for Hamlin's health.
Hamlin and the No. 11 team which is usually one of the top teams in the Cup garage just never got back on track. One of Hamlin's best tracks, Pocono Raceway, was next up and he finished eighth. Who would have thought that would have been Hamlin's last top 10 until 17 races later at Charlotte when he finished ninth. That 16 race stretch was horrendous. The team only scored three top 20 finishes and had three crashes and two engine failures.
It was looking like Hamlin, who was in his eighth full time Sprint Cup Series season, was about to have his first without a victory. That was saved in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Hamlin and the No. 11 team found their stride to score an emotional win to end a horrible season on a high note.
The No. 11 team finished an incredibly low 25th in owner points and Hamlin himself was 23rd in the driver standings. The only stat that was good for the team was the five poles they won. That was a career high for Hamlin. But the speed in qualifying was not translating to speed in the race for the team. Hamlin recorded career lows in top fives with four and laps led with 363. His eight top 10 finishes were six less than his previous worst.
However, the victory at Homestead-Miami came at the perfect time to push the reset button for the offseason and move into the 2014 season with confidence on their side. While his team struggled the other Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch were performing well throughout the season so getting the No. 11 team back to their level does not seem like a far fetched idea.
One of the biggest storylines for 2014 will be to see if Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team can return to championship contention.
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