2006 Team Performance
Mr. Gibbs only wishes his Washington Redskins could feature a roller coaster this bumpy. Whereas the Sons of Jason Campbell pretty much just stink, Joe Gibbs Racing goes year-to-year with rise-and-fall upheavals that make the Roman Empire seem serene. In 2005, Tony Stewart won his second Nextel Cup championship, while Bobby Labonte and Jason Leffler inhaled backwards, and got the ax. In 2006, Stewart still won a bunch of races, but had enough numbingly bad performances to miss the Chase for the Championship. Meanwhile, rookie Denny Hamlin made the Chase, won two events, and finished third overall in points. This shocking development led to Hamlin being named Rookie of the Year, while his fellow first-year driver, J.J. Yeley, could muster only three top-10 finishes. Talk about your mood swings. Between tracking the EKG charts of his drivers' fortunes and watching Clinton Portis fall apart limb after limb through the '06 NFL season, Gibbs was certainly nothing short of goggle-eyed last year.
2007 Team Outlook
Hamlin's emergence in the No. 11 car made everyone forget about the regrettable Leffler experiment, and solidified Gibbs as one of the cornerstone franchises in NASCAR. And Stewart presumably learned a lot from his season on the brink, in which he alternately chastised younger drivers for being too aggressive and then ran people off the track himself. Smoke's 2006 struggles might have scared him straight, but they point out how difficult it is to gain entry to the Chase. It would be a true stunner if Stewart misses Nextel Cup's playoffs for a second consecutive year. Hamlin will have that yellow stripe off his bumper, but in its place he'll wear a big target on his back; he wouldn't be the first driver to struggle in his sophomore campaign after a great introduction (see also: Kahne, Kasey; McMurray, Jamie; Harvick, Kevin; Skinner, Mike; et al). Still, he and crew chief Mike Ford worked great together in '06, and nothing's changed heading into this season. Yeley needs to find chemistry with longtime No. 18 helmsman Steve Addington, but at the moment, it seems pretty clear he's third banana at Gibbs. Even if his car is green.
11 - Denny Hamlin
Best Finish: 1st
Poles, Top-fives, top-10s, DNFs: 3, 8, 20, 1