LONG POND, Pa. -- For Denny Hamlin, a good points day is no longer good enough. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver needs race victories, and Sunday he never really had an opportunity for one -- even on one of his best race tracks.
A flawless pit stop gave Hamlin track position late, and he held on to finish eighth at a Pocono Raceway, where he's won four times. But all that gave him was one position in the standings, which did little to improve his odds of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- odds that are getting a little longer with every passing week.
Hamlin said part of the issue Sunday was that his team's setup was off. But another was under the hood, in an engine Toyota Racing Development tuned for reliability over maximum horsepower after a spate of failures in recent weeks.
"It's a tough compromise, because in my opinion, I'm a racer. I'd rather blow up leading than run 15th all day," Hamlin said. "That's just my mentality. We'd rather know we have a chance to win. Today, that was out of the question."
Hamlin missed four full races due to a broken vertebra in his lower back suffered in a last-lap crash at Fontana in late March. The recovery time jeopardized his chances of qualifying for the NASCAR playoff, for which he needs to be in the top 20 in points to qualify. At 25th leaving Pocono, Hamlin knows he'll need race wins -- more than one, almost certainly -- to steal a Wild Card and keep alive his streak of making the Chase in every full-time season he's run so far.
All of which make missed chances like Sunday's sting even more. Hamlin has run very well since returning, scoring top-10s in three of four full-race appearances. But right now it's win or else, and Sunday, he was never even a factor at a facility where he's typically a prime contender. Instead, Jimmie Johnson ran away, leading 128 laps in a dominant performance.
"It's tough," Hamlin said. "Had we had all the horsepower back today, I maybe could have given them a run, but I think our setup was off enough to where it probably wouldn't have been that good. It definitely cost us spots today, but it didn't cost me a win, I don't think. ...Next week is going to be another critical horsepower track, but I think that, in my opinion, we have room to be more aggressive. We can get back to the top 20 points finishing eighth or so, but that does nothing if you can't get a win."
Next week brings Michigan, and another track like Pocono that puts an emphasis on engines. After one TRD engine failed at Charlotte and two more last week at Dover, company officials decided to adjust tuning parameters to put reliability over top-end performance -- which they thought could be spared, given how well most of the Toyota cars have run this season.
The TRD engines didn't get a chance to show their flat-out best in qualifying, which was rained out. Sunday, two Toyota drivers cracked the top 10 -- Hamlin in eighth, and JGR teammate Kyle Busch in sixth. It marked the first time this season that no Toyota driver has finished in the top five, but not everyone in the manufacturer's fleet pointed to the power plant under the hood as the reason.
"It was fine," Matt Kenseth, who finished 25th after being caught in an accident, said of his engine. "The 18 (car of Busch) and 11 (of Hamlin), I think, finished up OK and we were fine before we had the problem. We were OK. Jimmie had us covered, but there was a couple runs where we were pretty respectable. I didn't think it was a big deal. I think we had the tools, if we had the car just right, to win until whatever happened to it."
Added Mark Martin, who finished 19th: "Our engine ran good. We were fine with the engine. We just couldn't get through the corners as good as we needed to get up there and fight for it."
But those drivers are in a very different situation from Hamlin, who needs race wins more than anything else. The reduction in horsepower, he said, was "double what they thought in simulation." He had to drive differently because he lacked as much power off the corner, he added, and wasn't able to suck up to other cars as easily in the draft generated on the 2.5-mile track. A car three lengths behind him coming off one corner would be beside him by the time they reached the next.
"If our cars could go back to the way they were running three or four weeks ago, I would say we've got a good shot at a win," he said. "We're going to just have to battle through it. We can all (complain) and moan about the power and everything, but ultimately, it's not our decision of what to put under the hood. TRD and Joe Gibbs Racing are going to decide what's best for our race team, and we as drivers are just going to have to suck it up and have to overcome it. You can't always have the fastest car. Sometimes a driver has to make something up, and for these next few weeks, at least, it looks like I'm going to have to do that."
Meanwhile, "we're just going to have to deal with it until everything in Costa Mesa is settled out," Hamlin said, referring to the California city where TRD is headquartered, "and they get back the reliability and the comfort to give us what we need."
And rely on a pit crew that vaulted him to seventh to second late in the race, keeping him in contention.
"I've been telling everyone how good our pit crew is, and I think they're the best. But to take us from sixth or something to second on pit lane, against the best guys, that speaks for itself," he said. "They're the ones keeping us in this deal. They kept us in the first two races when I came back, and they're doing it again. We're riding the coattails of the pit crew right now."
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