Last year, Denny Hamlin won at Richmond, the final race to the Chase, and won two Chase races (Martinsville and Texas), mounting perhaps the strongest challenge to the reign of Jimmie Johnson.
This year, the No. 11 bunch had to survive an early race crash to finish 9th and make the Chase by virtue of being the one-win driver in 11th-20th with the most points.
Not exactly a repeat performance.
Engine reliability is still the same storyline that it's been all year, even with the TRD engines now under Hamlin's hood. The good news is that Hamlin has three straight top 10s heading into the Chase, the first time he's done that all season. Heck, it's only the second time he's had back-to-back top 10s.
So what's up?
Hamlin's best Chase track: This one is obvious. Good old Martinsville. Hamlin has 10 top 10s in 12 races and an average finish of 6.6 at the paperclip. He's almost as good at Loudon too, with an average finish of 7.2, better than his average Richmond finish.
Hamlin's worst Chase track: Hamlin's worst average finish at a Chase track comes at Dover, where he's got four top 10s in 11 career starts. But that is skewed a bit after five consecutive finishes worse than 20th from 2007-2009.
Key Question: What's the real No. 11 team? The one that barely made the Chase or the one that had the points lead going into the final race last season and won eight races, a number twice as many as Hamlin's 2011 top fives?
NB's Prediction: 9th. While it can be argued that the No. 11 team is running well at the right time, "well" may be a relative term. If this spurt of consistency is the sign of things to come and Hamlin betters his averages at Loudon and Martinsville, Hamlin could again be a serious threat to Johnson.
- Denny Hamlin