Highs and Lows: Phoenix Pivotal in Denny Hamlin's Career

PHOENIX - APRIL 09: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office/March of DimesToyota, ices his left knee during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Subway Fresh Fit 600 at Phoenix International Raceway on April 9, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. Hamlin is racing after successful knee surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last week. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)

When one thinks of Denny Hamlin, a variety of tracks probably come to mind. Martinsville, where he has snatched the torch away from Jimmie Johnson as the track's dominant force; Richmond, his beloved home track where he finally won in 2009 and repeated in 2010; and Daytona, where he first burst into the limelight.

However, it is the Phoenix International Raceway, site of this weekend's Subway Fresh-Fit 500 and a track on which Hamlin has yet to win - his best finish is third on four occasions - that has played a pivotal role in his Sprint Cup career.

By November 12, 2005, it had already been announced that Hamlin would be the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet for the 2006 season. He validated the team's decision, however, by qualifying on the pole for just his sixth Sprint Cup start.

While his 13th place finish in that race, while solid, was uninspiring in the midst of a four-man championship fight and the Kurt Busch debacle, the pole position qualified him to race three months later in the Bud Shootout at Daytona.

Hamlin, of course, beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Tony Stewart to win the race. A star was born.

The April 2007 race at Phoenix was Hamlin's fourth start at the track, and at served as the perfect microism for his frustrating 2007 season.

His Chevrolet was by far the fastest car in the race's first 100 laps, but a speeding penalty - which Hamlin pointedly questioned during his post-race interview - dropped him deep in the pack. By the time the race ended, he had only made it to third place. Worse, Jeff Gordon won the event, the first of three Gordon victories that came in races where Hamlin had been strong enough to win outright but was felled by circumstances within or beyond his control.

Three years later, in April 2010, Hamlin returned to Phoenix not as damaged goods, but close enough. His surgically-repaired left knee left him hobbled, with Casey Mears waiting to take over the No. 11 car as a relief driver.

After having fluid drained from the knee just before the start of the race, Hamlin took the green flag in 26th place. On lap 15, disaster struck as Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne tangled ahead of him. Busch's sliding Dodge hit the right side of Hamlin's Toyota, doing moderate damage.

From there, things continued downhill. A dead battery cost the team two laps, and Hamlin limped, both figuratively and literally, to a 30th-place finish.

However, that it was Hamlin and not Mears who brought the white and purple machine to the finish line seemed to serve as a huge morale boost for the team and a change in perception amongst his peers towards the sometimes previously-maligned driver.

The No. 11 team took off in the aftermath of Phoenix, winning the next race in Texas. They won again at Darlington the next month and added back-to-back victories in June at Pocono and Michigan.

Though their momentum tailed after that Michigan victory, a rock-solid showing through the first eight races of the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup, including a win at Texas the week prior, had Hamlin sitting atop the standings entering the season's penultimate event.

At Phoenix.

There, Hamlin again started deep in the field - 17th - but he raced into the lead on lap 66. From that point, he seemed unstoppable, leading 190 laps in total as his championship rival Jimmie Johnson struggled to maintain position among the top-ten.

Just when it seemed he would all-but clinch the 2010 championship in Arizona, his fortunes took a turn. For the worst.

First, he was chased down and passed for the lead by Carl Edwards. Then, a fuel miscalculation by the team forced Hamlin to make a pit stop that Johnson avoided. When the checkered flag fell, Johnson was fifth. Hamlin was a tortured twelfth.

There in Phoenix, Hamlin's dream season had come unraveled.

He carried a fifteen-point lead and, admittedly, the wrong mindset into the season-finale at Homestead. An early tangle with Greg Biffle left Hamlin's Toyota bent, and he could but watch helplessly as Johnson raced to his fifth-straight championship.

After a star-crossed Speedweeks, one that saw him give away a sure-victory in the Bud Shootout, have a bizarre qualifying mishap, and be involved in no fewer than three on-track incidents during the week, Phoenix again is shaping up to be an important race for Denny Hamlin.

A strong showing on the one-mile D-shaped oval would not be the perfect remedy for the heartbreak of the last November, something only a championship could bring, but it could go a long way in rejuvinating a team that appears still winded from that crushing defeat.

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