BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 19: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 19, 2011 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Irish Hills of Michigan for the Quicken Loans 400. Denny Hamlin is the two-time defending event champion.
This is a marquee weekend for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, with the teams competing at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, MI. The track is located in the shadow of Detroit, which of course is the home of the American automotive industry. Since the rack opened to stock car racing in the late '60s, Ford, General Motors (with Chevrolet and a variety of other brands), and Chrysler have fought for supremacy at their home track.
Lately, however, it has been Toyota that has been the dominant force at MIS. The Japanese auto giant has won four of the last five races at Michigan, with only Kevin Harvick's August 2010 win in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet coming for one of the domestic nameplates.
Two of those wins - the last two editions of this weekend's race, the Quicken Loans 400 - have gone to Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin.
In 2010, he dominated the race and was cruising for an easy win before a late caution flag - for debris, which Hamlin questioned and wound up being fined - closed the field up. Hamlin pulled away from Kasey Kahne over the final 14 laps and won by just over a second.
That was Hamlin's fifth win through 15 races in 2010. He wound up winning eight total and nearly claimed the championship before crumbling under pressure at the season-finale in Homestead, wrecking early, and squandering a 15-point lead to Jimmie Johnson.
Last season, the Cup Series made its annual June stop in the Irish Hills with the hangover from their miserable defeat still clearly hanging over the heads of Hamlin and the team. Hamlin took the lead late, leading only the final eight laps (after leading 123 a year prior) but was able to hold off a furious charge from Matt Kenseth - who nearly crashed exiting the final corner - to grab his first win of the season.
It wound up being his only win in all of 2011, as the team's struggles continued. In the offseason, following a ninth-place finish in the standings, Gibbs shook up Hamlin's team. Crew chief Mike Ford, the only pit boss Hamlin had known in his Sprint Cup career dating back to late 2005, was fired. His replacement was Darian Grubb, who helped lead Tony Stewart to the championship with an incredible five-win performance in the final ten races of the 2011 season.
Hamlin won at Phoenix, seemingly exorcising the demons from his November 2010 defeat there that left him with the tiny point lead he blew the following week. He then outdueled a dominant Martin Truex Jr. to win at Kansas in April. In the six races since that victory, he has finished in the top-five four times including runner-up finishes at Darlington and Charlotte.
Now, the No. 11 FedEx team returns to Michigan as the two-time defending event champions. They sit fourth in the standings following a fifth-place finish at Pocono last weekend, with eight top-10 finishes - seven of those in the top-five - in the 14 races thus far.
While it isn't necessary for Hamlin to win the race to show that he is ready to put the failures of 2010 behind him and claim the title he should have won that season, anything that keeps his recent string of consistency going will send a clear message - both to their competitors and to the team itself - that they aren't going away anytime soon.