LONG POND, Pa. -- Physically, Denny Hamlin felt fine. Although his crash after cutting a tire last weekend at Dover was the first real hit he'd taken since missing several weeks with a fractured vertebra in his lower back, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said he emerged from the accident feeling better than he has following any event at the Monster Mile.
"I think physically, everything was good," Hamlin said at Pocono Raceway, where he's won four times. "It didn't affect me at all."
But emotionally? Well, that's another story. In that respect the Dover accident was quite a blow for a driver who can hardly afford such missteps in his bid to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup after missing four full races because of the back injury sustained in a final-lap crash in Fontana on March 24. Hamlin returned to full-time competition with consecutive top-four finishes that showed just how well he's capable of running in his No. 11 car.
But the Dover wreck, which happened with 20 laps remaining and turned a potential top-five into a 34th-place finish, showed just how narrow his margin for error really is in this Chase quest. Not only did Hamlin drop two spots to 26th in points, but race winner Tony Stewart further complicated the playoff push for a driver who needs to be inside the top 20 just to qualify for a wild-card berth to the Chase, and now likely needs more than one victory to get in.
The Dover race emphasized how much of this is out of Hamlin's control. Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kurt Busch were all in the running for the victory, and wins by any of them between now and September will place the JGR driver's Chase aspirations in more serious jeopardy.
"It was a double blow with Tony winning," Hamlin said. "I'm happy for him, but either way him and Juan at the end, it was not looking good for me, I guess you could say. I said earlier, we weren't going to keep those guys from winning. They were going to win at some point. Same with the 78 (car of Busch), I feel like he's going to win at some point. I'm going to need to get two wins. If I get one, then it will put me in the mix, but then I'd have to leapfrog those guys on points, and with the bad finish that I had last week, it's going to be pretty hard to do. I'm going to have to rely on, I think, two wins and then barely getting in the top 20 at the end."
And he has 13 events in which to get it done. Hamlin is 74 points behind 20th-place Ryan Newman, and made up 83 by finishing second and fourth in his first two full-time starts back in the car. But Dover was a reminder that not every race will go as smoothly. The accident knocked him back into the same 26th-place points position where he had been two weeks earlier.
"This point system is tough. It really is. We're in a hole," Hamlin said. "Obviously it gives us a chance, based on wild cards. But ? I have an average now of two spots better in each race on performance, just because I had one bad finish for the next 13 weeks. That's a crusher as far as that's concerned. That part of it is tough. ? Now we've set ourselves back to where we pretty much started again. We've done the math, we know what we have to do, but obviously we know that every bad finish it hurts us that much more."
If there's a consolation to all this, it's that Dover is historically one of Hamlin's worst tracks -- although he certainly didn't show it by winning the pole. His ticket to the Chase is through race victories, and the summer presents plenty of layouts where the No. 11 team is typically very strong. That stretch begins Sunday at Pocono, where Hamlin will have to start 17th due to the qualifying rainout, but where (along with Martinsville) he's won more than anywhere else on the premier circuit.
"Obviously it's a great opportunity to try to get a win. We feel like our cars are very strong and capable of that right now," he said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't be coming in here with three consecutive top-fives, but circumstances took us out last week and now we just have to work that much harder if we want to achieve that Chase spot."
Next week brings Michigan, where Hamlin has won twice. A few weeks after that comes New Hampshire, where Hamlin finished first and second last season, but was strong enough to sweep both races. Getting a first win by that first New Hampshire race in July may be critical for a driver who likes the string of nine tracks stretching from early summer and into the Chase. He's won on six of them -- Pocono, Michigan, Loudon, Atlanta, Bristol and Richmond.
"I think New Hampshire will be a key race for us," he said. "Obviously we did win the two leading into the Chase last year between Atlanta and Bristol, and we should have won Richmond. We've got some really good ones down the stretch, but I don't want to wait have three races to go and need to win two. That's pressure for sure. We don't want to wait that long."
Which is why Hamlin may use some of JGR's limited tests to fine-tune at tracks where he's already strong. "We're going to try to get some race tracks scheduled in the next couple months where we already run good, but we need to go there and dominate, similar to what we did in New Hampshire last year," he said. "We need to capitalize on those type of race tracks, and we need to test at them."
Right now Stewart and Aric Almirola occupy the two potential wild-card spots, the former based on his Dover victory and the latter because of his 11th-place standing in points. Pocono brings hope to Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano, the two winners here last season, and at the moment on the outside looking in. The looming road course races at Sonoma and Watkins Glen surely favor Montoya, a former Formula One driver whose NASCAR program has made great strides in recent weeks.
But none of them have more work to do than Hamlin, who has never missed a Chase in his full-time Sprint Cup career, and needs a huge push over the next three months to keep that record intact.
"We just reassess our goals and change them every single week," Hamlin said. "Obviously every week I go out and drive as if I need the win, and it takes its toll maybe on your competitors because you don't let as many pass you and things like that. We're in a little bit different situation than everyone else is right now."
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