DOVER, Del. -- Denny Hamlin emerged from his No. 11 hauler after an extensive debrief with his race team, the top half of his black and orange firesuit unzipped and dangling around his waist. Given his role these days at Joe Gibbs Racing, a white lab coat might have been more fitting.
With teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch first and second, respectively, in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Hamlin has become the mad scientist tinkering with experiments that might benefit his stable mates gunning for a title. That's been evident in the first two weeks of the playoff -- at Chicagoland where Hamlin lost an engine trying a different package under the hood, and at New Hampshire where he finished 12th trying a setup different from what the other JGR drivers used.
All of this while Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb are trying to find some improvement of their own, near the finish of a season that was interrupted by a back injury that forced the driver to miss most of five races, and is concluding with him missing the Chase for the first time in his career.
"It's a tough balance, I'd say. We're trying to get better, and we're chipping away at getting better. ? It's difficult, because you know every best, bad-ass car that comes down the line is going to go to those guys from this point on. Motors, and all that stuff," Hamlin said at Dover International Speedway.
"But we still should be able to be more competitive that what we've been, which has been disappointing. I've got eight races to get better, and there's a lot of testing we're about to do that's going to make us better. I see things heading in the right direction, at least. We're at least not on the downfall. We're at least climbing our way back to being more competitive than we have been. So at least I can take some solace in that."
As he can in helping his teammates maintain their position in the Chase, where Kenseth and Busch have finished first and second -- in that order -- in each of the playoff's first two races. Hamlin's team is in full-blown experimentation mode, trying engine and setup packages that might aid Kenseth or Busch later in the playoff, while at the same time trying to take points away from other championship hopefuls by finishing in front of them.
Meanwhile, he's also trying to lay the groundwork for a better 2014, and keep alive his streak of winning at least one race in every year of his Cup career as a full-time driver. Toward that end, his 12th-place finish last week at New Hampshire was his best in more than three months. He may be the odd man out at JGR when it comes to the championship, but Kenseth stressed he's still a part of the process.
"Certainly he's not the odd man out at all when it comes to meetings, trying to perform, trying to finish," said Kenseth, who leads Busch by 14 points. "He's still got a lot at stake this year. I know he wants to run the best he can every week. I know he wants to get back to Victory Lane this year and get everything kind of rolling along. Get some momentum back, get that feel back in the team like everything is clicking and going good again before the year is over ? carry that momentum over the offseason and build on that and get ready for '14. It's not like it's a wasted year."
It certainly helps when he can have a direct impact, which may have been the case a week ago in New Hampshire. Information gleaned from the No. 11 team in a test session and the first race this season in the Granite State helped Kenseth turn the tide on a track where he had never won before last Sunday. And Busch said the setups he and Kenseth used at Loudon were both variations of a setup pioneered by Hamlin, a two-time winner at the track.
"Denny has always been fast at Loudon, so spring of last year we bolted in Denny Hamlin's setup," Busch said. "We just said, 'Here it is, go figure it out. It works, so I've got to figure out what I've got to do to be good at Loudon and drive it.'
"Since then, we've only made little, little tweaks to it, and haven't ventured too far from it to develop the Kyle Busch Loudon setup. So the last two times we've been at Loudon, the spring we led a of of laps and finished second, and this time ... we got to second at the end of the race and had a fast car. Matt did essentially the same thing. They just bolted in our setup, which is a Denny setup, and just learned how to drive it. (Kenseth) spent the spring (race) learning it, and obviously he conquered it in the fall."
Contributions like that certainly help Hamlin weather his first Chase-less season a little bit better. So does progress on his problematic back, which has given him trouble since before he fractured a vertebra in a final-lap crash at Fontana on March 24. Treatment a few weeks ago helped, and has Hamlin hoping he won't need surgery at the end of the season as he once feared. "Two or three weeks of not racing will probably go a long way," he said.
Then there was Thursday night, when Hamlin was honored in Washington with the March of Dimes' most prestigious award for his work in raising awareness on behalf of a charity that helps babies born premature. Hamlin's No. 11 car occasionally sports a March of Dimes paint scheme, and earlier this week he visited Capitol Hill to lobby for a bill that would expand and improve screening programs for newborns.
"I got to meet a lot of great people, and we've made some headway, I think, in the Senate and House tying to get that bill passed," said Hamlin, who has a daughter of his own. "It was a great experience. It was an honor for me to be recognized by them for being an advocate. I'm just lucky enough to be receiving the award when, really, I was chosen to be the advocate for them. I was humbled, to say the least."
This entire NASCAR season has been humbling for a driver who entered the year with championship aspirations and is finishing it in a supportive role. Having an impact on his teammates' success helps, but the better he runs, the more assistance he can give to Kenseth and Busch as they continue their parallel quests for a title.
"It's satisfying, but in the same instance you've got to evolve, and I feel like we haven't evolved that well," Hamlin said. "We have seemed to struggle since the new types of setups have come into our sport. But my job for these last eight races is to be a help to them in any kind of way that I can. Ultimately my goal is to finish better so I can be between them and other Chase guys. We beat probably five or six last week, which is good, but we'd like to beat 10 of them."
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