Hamlin is the man to beat

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Kyle Busch bolted out of the gate in 2008, racking up eight quick wins while moving to the top of the Sprint Cup Series standings.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Kyle Busch bolted out of the gate in 2008, racking up eight quick wins while moving to the top of the Sprint Cup Series standings.

But when the title was on the line, he crumbled.

Busch stumbled in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener. He declared his title hopes over after the second of 10 races, and he finished 10th in the final standings.

Two years later, teammate Denny Hamlin needs to make sure that doesn't happen to him. It's Hamlin that Joe Gibbs Racing now has hitting on all cylinders, and Sunday's win at Michigan International Speedway was his career best and series-leading fifth of the season.

If the Chase began today, Hamlin would be the top seed with a 20-point advantage over four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.


That, however, assures little. Busch learned that firsthand in what had been shaping up as a dream first season with JGR. He won 21 races spanning NASCAR's top three series that year. He was so unstoppable it seemed he could win anywhere. That included Infineon Raceway, a road course that had vexed Busch every year and the first two days of his visit there in 2008.

But his No. 18 crew threw everything at the Toyota that weekend, and Busch broke through for his first victory on a road course.

It's similar to what Hamlin and his No. 11 team experienced at Michigan last weekend when their car was junk through two days of practice. Crew chief Mike Ford made significant changes heading into race day, and the result was a rocket ship that built leads of nearly 10 seconds.

"We made probably more changes than we have all year," Ford said. "Friday we were what I consider horrible. We weren't a top-15 team. We made some big adjustments going into Saturday. Really didn't think we had a shot to win."

In winning, Hamlin proved he's a legitimate title contender. He's just got to avoid the same pitfalls that sabotaged Busch. And, so far, Hamlin seems on the right track.

For starters, JGR seems much improved. Busch and Hamlin have a combined seven victories through 15 Cup races this season and are second and third in the standings. Busch trails series leader Kevin Harvick by 22 points while Hamlin is 47 back.

Meanwhile, third JGR driver Joey Logano is showing steady improvement in his second season in the series. With four consecutive finishes of 13th or better, he's 17th in the standings.

That companywide consistency can make JGR only stronger in the long run and when the stakes are highest -- something the organization struggled with in 2008.


When Busch lost the championship, he had a mechanical problem in the Chase opener and a motor failure the next week. Last season, when Hamlin was making a run at the title, he had two engine failures in the Chase.

JGR knows how to win championships -- the team did it in 2000 with Bobby Labonte and in 2002 and 2005 with Tony Stewart. The trick is figuring out how to do it with more than one contending driver without sacrificing anything in equipment reliability.

That's where Ford comes in.

He is as even-tempered as they come in the garage, and he does a tremendous job of keeping his crew focused. Few outside distractions are allowed inside the No. 11 hauler, which sometimes seems as if it's operating as a single-car team.

After an accident that left Hamlin and Stewart with wounded race cars during Daytona Speedweeks two years ago, it seemed as if most of the additional JGR personnel on hand attended to the repairs on Stewart's No. 20 car. Half a garage away, the No. 11 team worked alone, almost preferring to take an us-against-the world attitude.

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