Season finish: 3rd
2014 Season Stats: 1 win (Talladega, spring), 7 Top-5s, 18 Top-10s, 3 Poles.
What went right: After enduring a 2013 season that was largely forgettable save for his win at Homestead, Hamlin locked up a Chase for the Sprint Cup spot early in 2014 with a victory at Talladega. An up-and-down summer and then a narrow escape from the Chase’s opening Challenger Round followed, but Hamlin and the 11 team caught fire at the right time (one Top-5 and four Top-10s across the Contender and Eliminator Rounds) to break into the Championship Race at Homestead.
What went wrong: Hamlin made the Championship 4, but it was a challenging road to get there. Let’s count the obstacles: 1) He missed Fontana due to a piece of metal getting stuck in his eye; 2) His Toyota was relatively down on power for much of the year; 3) His team was severely penalized following the Brickyard 400; and 4) He was involved at Charlotte in the first of two post-race fights in this year’s Chase.
He overcame it all but in the title decider at Homestead, a decision by crew chief Darian Grubb to not pit for fresh tires backfired due to several late cautions. On old rubber, Hamlin was eventually gobbled up by Kevin Harvick, who went on to win the title; Hamlin finished seventh in the race.
2015 Prospectus: In the wake of Joe Gibbs Racing’s recent crew chief shuffle, Hamlin’s partnership with Grubb has come to a close. Grubb has taken over as CC for Carl Edwards in JGR’s new No. 19 team, and replacing him on the 11 pit box will be Dave Rogers, formerly the CC for Kyle Busch.
Hamlin and Rogers should get along okay, but the loss of Hamlin’s long-time engineer, Mike Wheeler (who will crew chief for JGR’s No. 20 XFINITY Series squad next year) might have a negative impact. The team, along with the rest of the Toyota stable for that matter, also can’t afford to be at a power deficit again in 2015.