Denny Hamlin resigned himself to defeat in the Chase for the Championship a couple weeks ago. He did the same last year. And the year before, and the year before that.
Kyle Busch didn’t even make the Chase this year. Neither did Joey Logano.
All three work at Joe Gibbs Racing. Once the flagship operation for Toyota, the race team can’t seem to do what their famous car owner did in football – win in the playoffs.
“One of these days it’s going to be our time,” Hamlin said. “It’s just not going to be right now.”
The Gibbs organization is one of the elite groups in NASCAR. That’s why their continued struggles in the Chase are perplexing. Tony Stewart won a championship in 2005 for the three-time Super Bowl champion coach, but that came before Jimmie Johnson got on his run of five titles in a row.
With the exception of Hamlin’s last-season meltdown in 2010, Gibbs hasn’t been a real contender for the championship since.
“When you can answer that question, you let me know,” team vice president Jimmy Makar told the Sporting News. “I’d love to know the answer to that one. It goes back to the old thing, ‘Why ask why?’
“Some things you just don’t have an explanation for. I don’t have a great answer for you.”
Gibbs won three Super Bowls and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s won three Sprint Cup Series championships, but two came before NASCAR adapted the Chase format for the 2004 season.
Much like his championship seasons with the Washington Redskins, his race teams go into each seasons – and the playoffs – well prepared. For some reason, they can’t transform that into a push during the Chase.
“I’ve been in these Chases for seven years and I’ve had my fair share of electrical issues and motor issues and things like that,” Hamlin said. “All I can do is just drive my heart out and if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be.”
Hamlin came close in 2010. He won at the Texas Motor Speedway to take a commanding 33-point lead into the final two races. His team miscalculated his fuel mileage a week later at Phoenix and it forced him to make an extra pit stop in the final 10 laps. He gave up the race lead that day and finished 12th. It also allowed Johnson to cut the lead to 15 points with one race to go.
An early-race spin by Hamlin led to a 14th-place finish. Johnson finished second in the race and won his fifth consecutive championship.
Hamlin’s confidence hasn’t been the same since.
He was in great shape to contend again this year when he headed into the Oct. 28 race at Martinsville, Va., ranked third in the standings. A broken electrical switch, a $35 part, sent him to a 33rd-place finish – and out of the championship picture.
Now he’s seventh in the standings before Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at the Phoenix International Raceway.
“It’s a shame we can’t be a part of it, but we’re going to try to work our way as far up in the points as we possibly can and just keep digging,” Hamlin said. “There’s nothing you could do. There’s nothing you're going to change and so the best thing you can do is just try to be positive about it.”
Busch didn’t even make the Chase. He failed to make the cut by a single point.
“I mean, you’ve got to continue to work hard and strive to get better,” Busch said. “For missing the Chase by what we did, yeah, we had a lot of technical problems, but I’m sure there were a few races where we could have finished better. So, we've got to get better in every opportunity that we can.”
Busch blew an engine and he was involved in two crashes and suspended for one race when he was in the playoffs last year.
His run to qualify for this year’s Chase was stalled by three engine failures during the regular season.
“I don’t believe necessarily in bad luck and good luck,” Makar said. “You create your own luck by being prepared and not prepared. Things happen for a reason. It’s just not happenstance that makes them happen.
“I don’t know that it’s bad luck; untimely, for sure. We’ve had a few things happen over the years in the Chase and this doesn’t leave you much opportunity to bounce back from it. It’s unfortunate and frustrating.”
And certainly perplexing.