DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For Denny Hamlin, the hits keep on coming.
The wrong kind.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, trying to make a charge from deep in the standings to keep alive his perfect streak of qualifying for the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, instead keeps finding more adversity to overcome. One week after suffering a pair of tire failures at Kentucky -- the latter resulting in a hit that led him to visit the care center on his own -- Hamlin was involved in a pair of scrapes at Daytona International Speedway, the latter producing another big impact that may have KO'd his playoff chances once and for all.
"It's tough," crew chief Darian Grubb said after a 36th-place finish. "I know he's really tired of hitting the wall. We're doing it every week, whether it's his fault or not. So it's tough, and it's hard to keep him motivated with all that, but he's still coming in with his game face on, and he drove his butt off tonight. He wanted to go to the front, and we ran to the front two or three times. Wish we could finish there."
Hamlin, who missed four full races earlier this season with a back injury, needs to finish inside the top 20 and likely earn more than one race victory to have a chance at a Wild Card berth to the Chase. Saturday's result dropped him one spot in the standings to 26th, 122 points behind 20th-place Paul Menard. Team president J.D. Gibbs said Hamlin was OK physically after the accident -- but emotionally, he was still smarting.
"Heartbroken," Gibbs called it.
Hamlin led 20 laps in the first half of the race, but was involved in his first run-in on Lap 98 when Martin Truex Jr. turned down across his nose. The No. 56 car slammed the inside wall in an accident that also involved Juan Pablo Montoya. Hamlin took a shot from behind from teammate Kyle Busch when he slowed in the fracas, and the ensuing stop for repairs sent him to 38th place and a lap down.
"Tell the 56 I apologize," Hamlin told Grubb over the radio. "I just got bad tight. Went dead straight."
Watch video of the wreck below:
Hamlin received the free pass back onto the lead lap, and was running between Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski on Lap 152 when the No. 11 car wobbled low and shot back up the track, impacting hard into the outside wall just shy of the flag stand. Gibbs driver Matt Kenseth, who until Saturday night owned the outright series lead in race victories, dived low to evade and slammed right into Jeff Gordon. Running right behind the initial accident, AJ Allmendinger had nowhere to go but straight into Hamlin's car.
"I was already around the top, so I slowed down as much as I could, and just got hit, and was kind of a Ping-Pong ball," said Kenseth, who won Friday night's Nationwide race and started Saturday on the front row. "? There's not much I could do."
Allmendinger felt the same way. "It's one of those things. It's Daytona. I have no clue how the wreck got started," said the driver, Saturday night piloting the No. 51 car for owner James Finch.
"It was like a 'Days of Thunder' thing," he added. "All the cars moved, and Denny appeared in front of me, and I hit him about as hard as I could. Just disappointing. Would have loved to have given James Finch a win, or at least a good finish. All I can say is, I was going for the win. That's all I can do."
The wreck knocked the wind out of Allmendinger, who staggered to the ground after climbing out of the car. But he was more concerned about Hamlin, who missed four full races and most of another earlier this season while recovering from a fractured vertebra in his lower back suffered March 25 in a last-lap crash with Joey Logano at Fontana.
"I just asked him if he was OK," Allmendinger said. "Obviously with his injuries this year and kind of how I hit him, when I saw him there I was a little bit scared he was re-injured. But he seemed fine. Just a hard hit. Unfortunately one of those racing deals."
Hamlin didn't speak to media Saturday night, buzzing by on a golf cart after leaving the medical center. "Sorry to the guys involved," he wrote later on Twitter. His crew chief admitted that the last two weeks have taken a toll on a team that needs to make up ground quickly, but is struggling to do it. After Saturday, only eight more regular-season races remain before the Chase.
"We're still going to fight until we get to Richmond, no matter what happens," Grubb said. "And we're not going to quit all the way to Homestead, even if we don't make the Chase. We're going to try and win as many races as we can. We've got fast cars, we just have to finish."
Next weekend brings a glimmer of hope -- New Hampshire, where Hamlin dominated both races a season ago, finishing second in the first event only because of a miscommunication with Grubb over pit strategy. As far as his Chase hopes are concerned, it may be Hamlin's last stand.
"We know what we can do there," Grubb said. "We've just got to go up there and make sure we do what we can do. We've got to get a top three out of it."
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