DAYTONA BEACH, Fla., -- For many drivers the offseason flies by at warp speed. Before they know it the NASCAR season is upon them and with it, the grind that goes with 38 races in 40 weeks.
This past offseason was not one that progressed quickly for Denny Hamlin; in fact, it was the complete opposite.
"... For me I'm one of the few drivers that couldn't get this offseason over quick enough, because as soon as we hit the race track 2013 is over and 2014 has started and we can stop talking about last year," Hamlin said during NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. "I'm excited for that part of it."
The reason Hamlin wants to erase 2013 from memory is simple and straightforward: It was by far the worst of his eight-year career. Just five races into a season where he was regarded as a championship favorite, Hamlin suffered a crippling injury in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway.
Diagnosed with a fractured back, Hamlin was forced to sit out four races. Adding to the indignity of seeing someone else in his No. 11 Toyota, two of the races the Virginia native missed were in his home state.
Upon his full-time return, Hamlin looked like his usual self. In his first two starts he finished second and fourth, on what he says now was "pure adrenaline." This gave credence to the belief he could rally and earn a seemingly improbable berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
That didn't happen. Instead, his season quickly derailed.
Through the summer months Hamlin's time on the track became filled with hard crashes, broken parts, and utter disappointment. All of which was evident during a 16-race stretch where his best result was 12th. Consequently, Hamlin quickly fell to the bottom of the Joe Gibbs Racing totem pole with teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, each in championship contention, getting the preferred cars and motors.
As bad as the year was, there were positives -- among them a victory in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- but there were also lessons.
"It's a dead year in a lot of ways," Hamlin said, "but what I take from it the most I would say would be just the appreciation of when you do run well and I took for granted just making the Chase every single year and winning multiple races every year."
"I just showed up and we did it. And, now I think with the competition and how we ran at the end of last year you've got to think about preparing for more weeks and preparing to be good. You can't just rely on talent to do it. ...It's all about debriefing and figuring out in your meeting how can you get better? Not just chalking it up, ‘Oh, it's just a bad weekend. We'll rebound next weekend.' No, why? Why did you struggle? How can you get better?"
Even with the late season victory at Homestead, the question is whether Hamlin can find his old form considering the numerous maladies that inflicted the No. 11 team. He fully expects a return of the consistency that carried him to five wins and a sixth-place finish in points in 2012.
"The only thing that's keeping me up at night right now is the anticipation," Hamlin said. "What I've seen from testing I believe that we're going to be one of the guys that come out pretty strong pretty early, and that's typically not how we start anyway."