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Hamlin and Busch at Gibbs Racing: Sprint Cup Champion Material?

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I’ve been thinking about an article I read in the January 2012 issue of Racer Magazine about Denny Hamlin by Tom Jensen entitled “Whatever Happened to Denny Hamlin.”  Jensen writes about the dichotomy between Hamlin’s 2010 and 2011 seasons and seeks to explain why 2011 was so bad for Hamlin.  He looks at multiple issues but the one that really stood out to me was the psychological issue.  That prompted me to think about Hamlin’s teammate at Gibbs Racing, Kyle Busch and wonder if either one of them are really Sprint Cup Champion material.

Two things really popped out at me in Jensen’s article.  The first being Hamlin’s reaction to having to make an extra fuel stop at Phoenix and his mental state at Homestead the next race during the 2010 title fight.  After Hamlin had to make that extra fuel stop at Phoenix, Jensen writes that:

…Hamlin was visibly stricken and refused even to enter the media center while Johnson was doing his post race interview. Hamlin looked like he saw a ghost.

He goes on to write of how Jimmie Johnson played mind games with Hamlin at the pre-race press conference at Homestead and how Hamlin handled it.  He relates Kevin Harvick’s observation:

I knew sitting on the stage last year that the No. 11 [Hamlin] wasn’t going to win the championship because he could hardly sit still and was so nervous that going into that race he could hardly stand it… Jimmie was gouging at it.  I just sat back and watched.

Hamlin went on to perform poorly in qualifying and wrecked early in the race. In Jensen’s words: “It wasn’t exactly a choke, but it was close.”  Furthermore, according to Jensen, it continued to effect Hamlin’s confidence through the offseason into the 2011 season.  The article ends by explaining that Hamlin recognizes that part of his problem in 2011 was his attitude and lack of self-confidence and is now working with a sports psychologist to remedy the problem.

There is no doubt that Hamlin is a good driver but is he a good racer? Is he champion material?  Compared to Jimmie Johnson, one of his 2010 rivals, it looks like the current answer is no.  At this point he just doesn’t have the mental strength to overcome problems and setbacks during the heat of closely contested championship.  Sure, he could win a championship when there aren’t any close competitors – when his equipment is far better than the rest but that isn’t the mark of a racer or a great champion.  NASCAR’s points system is designed to create tight championship battles, if Hamlin’s efforts with a sports psychologist don’t strengthen him mentally then he may not have a chance at winning a NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.

The article also made my think about Kyle Busch and question whether he is Sprint Cup Champion material.  There is no doubting Kyle Busch’s incredible driving skills, but driving skills aren’t the only part of being a racer.  Just as Hamlin has self-confidence issues that hold him back from being a champion racer, Busch has self-control issues that hold him back.  With Hamlin, it seems that problems spook him; with Busch it seems that problems ignite his temper which he then can’t control. Until Busch can learn to control his temper and work through adversity and work through problems rather than exploding, he probably won’t attain a Sprint Cup Championship.

In the upcoming 2012 season, it will be interesting to see if these two drivers have worked through their issues.  There is more to being a racer than just having great driving skills.  Mental and psychological toughness are just as important; the great racers are the ones who possess both.  Has Hamlin increased his self-confidence by working with a sports psychologist?  Has Busch learned from what his inability to control his temper did to him in 2011?


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