The year is drawing to a close, as Tuesday will be the final day of 2013, and the end of the year probably couldn’t come soon enough for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin. On a personal level, 2013 was a good year for the driver, as he became a first-time father. But career-wise? Not so much. In recent year’s Hamlin’s been, for the most part, a championship contender on a fairly consistent basis. In 2013, though, his year rolled steadily downhill after an early-season incident with Joey Logano.
Hamlin was impressive on qualifying day, claiming five pole starts throughout the 36-points-paying-race season, of which he ran 32, missing four races between the March race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., and the May race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. And he did claim one win, finally making his way to victory lane in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. But other than that, 2013 was pretty dismal, racing-wise. He only managed four top-five finishes in 32 races.
Actually, when you look at Hamlin’s pre-injury stats, he wasn’t doing so well, even before the Logano incident. He did manage a third-place finish in the second race of the season, but that was his only top-10 in the first five races, pre-injury. Not to mention, two of those five finishes fell outside the top-20. Then, there was that two-race stretch of altercations with Logano that led to Hamlin missing four races — five, depending on how you look at it. Hamlin did return in May to start the race at Talladega, so he was credited with a 34th-place finish there, but he only started the race before handing the wheel over to Brian Vickers.
In Hamlin’s first complete race back behind the wheel of his No. 11 a week later at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Hamlin looked to be back to his old form, posting a runner-up finish. Including that race, he went on to post three-straight top-10 finish, only one of those outside the top-five (sixth), and four top-10s in five races, but the successful return was short-lived. Finishes outside the top-20, some even outside the top-30, became more common than finishes inside the top-10 as the season drug on for Hamlin and his No. 11 team.
To illustrate Hamlin’s lackluster year, he was named by NASCAR as the Least Improved Driver Award as part of the sanctioning body’s year-end Loopies that are determined by loop data (see full list of winners and losers, here). Hamlin was handed the honor, or perhaps in this case dishonor, by virtue of having the biggest drop in driver rating compared to the previous season.
But maybe Hamlin was finally finding his way back to his past glory in the final stretch of the season. In addition to that season-ending win at Homestead, Hamlin put together stats that included three top-10 finishes in the final four races, four top-10s in the final six.
Can momentum carry over from the end of one season to the start of the next? I’m sure Hamlin hopes so. Career-wise, 2013 is probably a year the driver would like to forget, or at least most of it. If the final stretch of the past season is any indication, I think Hamlin will be back to his old self come the turning of the calendar. And for what it’s worth, if anything, Hamlin’s projected by NASCAR to be a virtual shoe-in for next years Most Improved Driver when it comes to the Loopies. I guess when you come so close to bottom one year, the only way to go is up the next.