By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 12:14 AM
DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. - When the green flag waves over Daytona International Speedway on Sunday afternoon, stock car racing's brightest spotlight will shine on Jimmie Johnson as he starts his quest for a sixth straight championship in NASCAR's top series.
But while everyone is watching Johnson this season, he'll be scanning his mirrors for Denny Hamlin, the Sprint Cup driver who represents the biggest threat to his reign. After all, if anyone knows how finishing second drives a man, it's Johnson.
"It toughens you up," said Johnson, who was runner-up in 2003 and '04 before beginning his streak in 2006. "It tests you to the core. It makes you think hard about the way you work, what you're working on and why you do it. It really challenges you. Some people, it may chase them away. But for most, it makes them stronger."
Hamlin, who returns with crew chief Mike Ford and the same team members, counts himself among the latter.
"It was a challenge, for sure," said Hamlin, a combustible 30-year-old from the Richmond area. "It was different than past seasons because we know we're capable of winning a championship. Now it's just, 'How are we going to get it done?' It would be very easy to have a hangover type season where you just don't run as well and have a letdown. But for me, I'm too passionate in everything I do to just roll over."
To understand the source of his determination, it's important to first consider the heartbreak Hamlin experienced last fall. All the No. 11 FedEx team needed was a solid finish at Phoenix, and a dominant season that included a series-best eight victories probably would have concluded with Hamlin celebrating his first championship. Instead, a fuel mileage miscue in the desert set up an all-or-nothing finale beneath Homestead's palm trees.
Johnson drove to a second place finish and into the history books. Hamlin, meantime, was 14th in his mangled Toyota. His 33-point collapse with two races remaining was complete, a successful season completely unraveled in just 14 days.
"Just one hiccup at Phoenix derailed everything we had going for us," Hamlin said in an interview last week. "We had to come in and pit and most everyone else didn't. We went from needing to go to Homestead, just start our engines and run around for 400 miles, to needing to win the race. I was in a such a negative mind-set after Phoenix, it was nearly impossible when I got to Homestead."
The disappointment that consumed him in December also served to fuel Hamlin's desire to improve in January. He rededicated himself throughout the offseason, focusing on fine-tuning areas where he has excelled and shoring up those where he has struggled - namely qualifying, restarts and his performances at Dover and Kansas, both of which are in the Chase.
Hamlin's average starting position in 2010 was 17.2; Johnson's was 9.4. Hamlin has never won at the aforementioned tracks; Johnson owns six victories at Dover and a win and three poles at Kansas.
"When my dad was coach of the 'Skins all those years and went to four Super Bowls, the one you went to and lost, it's like, 'I wish I didn't even go,' " team owner J.D. Gibbs said. "It's so hard to get over that for a while. But then you're able to, and you look back and learn from it. When you spend time with Denny, you would never guess he's that much of a student of the sport. But he's been like that since Day One. He really is studious."
The 2011 campaign hasn't started ideally for Hamlin, who was penalized for passing beneath the yellow line in the Budweiser Shootout, had his steering wheel come loose as qualifying began and spun in Thursday's 150-mile qualifying race. But he said he's far from panicked.
"Speedweeks is never an indication for our team of how we're going to do that year," said Hamlin, who has never finished better than 17th in the 500. "So I'm not going panic if we run terribly. But I don't think we're going to run terribly because all the cars are pretty much even."
Hamlin will start 18th, five spots ahead of Johnson. Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon will start on the front row, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. will drop to the rear of the field after wrecking his pole-winning car in practice.
Like everyone else, Hamlin is eager to see how things unfold over the course of 500 miles on Daytona's fast, smooth repaved surface. It figures to be as exciting as ever, he said, even if the racing features an unfamiliar look. In the Bud Shootout and qualifying races, drivers used tandem drafting - two cars driving nose-to-tail - to get around the 2.5 mile oval faster.
"We haven't had 43 cars out there at the same time yet," Hamlin said. "The pack is going to run so much faster, and the pack may be able to keep up with the two-car tandem. If that's the case, then the two-car tandems won't be effective."
But Hamlin is certain of one thing as his sixth full Cup season gets underway: he's that object in Johnson's rearview that's closer than it appears.
"We know we're each other's biggest threat," he said. "And not just because of last year. We had a strong enough Chase in '09 to beat [Johnson] for the championship, but we had two blown engines and that killed it. So he knows in the back of his mind. But he's still got the trophies. He's still the champion. He's still the guy I know I have to beat when I step out onto the track."