For a time this summer, Denny Hamlin looked like he might need to rely on a wild card to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup. He endured a miserable eight-race stretch that began with a fiery accident at Michigan in June, a race he'd won the previous two years. A late incident with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Joey Logano and Kyle Busch at Sonoma sent him to the garage 14 laps from the end with a broken suspension, marking just the second time in his career he'd failed to finish consecutive races.
The Darian Grubb-led No. 11 team temporarily stopped the bleeding with a third place run at Kentucky, before a grinding crash at Daytona left them 25th. Hamlin dominated at Loudon and should have won handily, but a mix-up between the driver and crew chief on what he was looking for in terms of tires (he wanted two like the rest of the leaders, Grubb assumed he wanted four) dropped him deep in the pack. He nearly caught Kasey Kahne for the win, but settled for the runner-up spot. The team grabbed the pole at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but finished sixth.
Hamlin was the victim in the late-race dust up involving race leaders Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth at Pocono that allowed Jeff Gordon to win. Hamlin hit the side of Kenseth's car, doing a number on his back that has given him problems all year. A blown engine and another fire at Watkins Glen one week later gave him two more back-to-back DNFs. An 11th at Michigan stopped the bleeding, but Hamlin had fallen to the Chase cutoff spot in 10th, with Kahne looming in his rear-view mirror.
The Sprint Cup series has run two races since that Michigan event, and it is though the No. 11 team has flipped a switch. At Bristol, they led 70 laps - a number stunted by pit strategies that varied all night long; Hamlin had the best car - and won for the first time at the half-mile bullring that had denied them cruelly in the past.
Then, last weekend's Advocare 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hamlin led a race-high 105 laps. When a caution flag erased Martin Truex Jr's lead with four laps to go, Hamlin's crew got him out of the pits first after entering third. He then held off a hungry Jeff Gordon - read: as dangerous a race car driver as you can imagine when he can sniff a win - to grab his 21st-career win and his second-straight.
The first time in his career that Hamlin won back-to-back races, in June 2010 at Pocono and Michigan, his streak was stopped with a miserable two-crash day at Sonoma that left him 34th.
Now anything can happen in a Sprint Cup race, of course, but Hamlin finishing that poorly Saturday evening is highly unlikely. He's racing at his home venue, the Richmond International Raceway. He won the Federated Auto Parts 400 in 2009 and again in 2010, before taking a tough ninth-place result in what was an all-around disappointing 2011 campaign.
Hamlin looks much less like he did last year and much more like he did entering the previous two Chases: full of swagger. A third-straight win - something he's never done and something no driver has done period since Jimmie Johnson won four-consecutive races in late 2007 - will do nothing but further boost the confidence of a driver that can be downright cocky - and very hard to beat - when things are going well.
That could be dangerous as he looks to finally exorcise the demons of that 2010 season, where he won a series-best eight races but squandered a 15-point lead (under the old system, equal to about three to five points under the current system that was implemented in 2011) in the last race at Homestead and saw Johnson win his fifth-straight title.
Hamlin starts seventh this evening, perilously close to the front for his rivals who have seen what he can do when he gets out front at Richmond. In 2008 he started from the pole and led 381 of the first 382 laps before a flat tire ruined his day - and set up the controversial accident between Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - and he's led nearly 1200 trips around his home circuit.
His four wins this season have guaranteed that Hamlin will begin the Chase at the very worst tied for the No. 1 seed, and if Johnson, Brad Keselowski, or Tony Stewart fail to win Saturday, he'll stand alone at the top. If the No. 11 Camry pulls into victory lane for a third-straight week tonight, he'll also stand alone as the favorite to claim the 2012 Sprint Cup crown.