Can Denny Hamlin rebound and join Joe Gibbs Racing teammates in Chase?

Streeter Lecka

While Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch had great success in 2013, the same can’t be said for Denny Hamlin, who in large doses dealt with injury and disappointment.

There was no fourth championship for Joe Gibbs Racing. And because of myriad factors, widespread success was missing amongst the organization's three cars. Regardless, no matter the barometer used, it's hard not to view JGR's 2013 season as an unqualified success.

So where does JGR go from here? And how can the team owned by the NFL Hall of Fame coach finally obtain the fourth championship that has been elusive for the previous eight years?

2013 in the Rearview

In his first year with JGR, Matt Kenseth won a series-best seven races and was in the thick of the championship fight all the way to Homestead, before ultimately finishing runner-up to Jimmie Johnson. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch rebounded from a frustrating 2012 campaign to win four times and, until the final weeks, was also a player for the title.

The only outlier at the House of Gibbs was Denny Hamlin, who at one point trudged his way through a 16-race stretch without a result better than 12th. In his defense, however, his season was doomed before it ever really got rolling, as a crash in the fifth race of the year at Fontana sidelined him for four weeks with a back injury.

Still not 100 percent upon his return, Hamlin was besieged by mechanical failures and essentially became the JGR R&D team as the year progressed. If there was any saving grace and a signal that the 33-year-old should return to prime form in 2014, it was his four top-10s in the final six races of the year capped by a victory in the season finale at Homestead.

2014 Driver Lineup

Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota); Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota); Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Dollar General/Home Depot Toyota)

Key Changes

A year after surprisingly wooing Kenseth away from Roush Fenway Racing, JGR embraced the status quo this offseason as all key personnel return.

Biggest Offseason Question

In hindsight, it's easy to view Hamlin's woeful 2013 campaign as an anomaly; a perfect storm of unfortunate events culminating with him producing the worst year of his career.

Foremost was the broken vertebra sustained at Fontana, which knocked Hamlin out of four races and part of another (he started the race at Talladega but quickly gave way to Brian Vickers). Although he was deemed fit enough to return to full-time competition and notched consecutive top-five finishes upon his return, it was clear Hamlin was not his usual self. Further compounding his back troubles were hard crashes at Kentucky and Daytona in back-to-back weeks.

But the question this offseason for JGR isn't whether Hamlin is completely healthy, as time off and continued rehab should help resolve the lingering issues he experienced last season. No, the question that surrounds the No. 11 team, even outside of Hamlin's health, is the continued lack of performance.

The rash of blown motors is explainable as the No. 11 often used experimental parts to better aid the championship efforts of Kenseth and Busch. That aside, it's unacceptable for Hamlin to go 16 weeks without posting a top-10. He and crew chief Darian Grubb are too talented to be that pedestrian for that long.

Was it something more pronounced last season, or did everything just become unhinged at once? That is the question that must be answered this offseason.


Winning seven races again may be a tad much, as it's natural to expect Kenseth to experience a bit of regression, though he'll still be incredibly formidable. Conversely, Busch is poised for the kind of year his teammate just had and it's not far-fetched to think he can't double the amount of wins he had in 2013. And with his back problems resolved, a determination to put last year behind him and a renewed sense of optimism, Hamlin will return to the Chase.

And high expectations should be the standard at JGR. With three championship-caliber drivers in their prime and a vast amount of resources at its disposal, there are no excuses for the team not to see its three teams be Chase participants. Anything less should be viewed as a disappointment.

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