Denny Hamlin makes no bones about it. After suffering his fourth sub-20th place finish in the last five races Sunday at Kentucky Speedway, he has to win a race to make the Chase. And with only nine races remaining to set NASCAR's 12-driver Chase field, he has a few tracks circled.
Hamlin has won at five of the nine remaining tracks that will set the Chase field, including twice at New Hampshire, three times at Pocono, and twice at his home track in Richmond, Va. In fact, nine of his 22 career wins -- almost 50 percent -- have come at those nine venues.
Hamlin's challenge is more daunting as he is racing with a back injury that sidelined him for four races this spring and cost him dearly in the standings.
Even after an accident that "rung my bell" on Sunday in Kentucky, Hamlin again insisted he's up for that challenge. And his team owner Joe Gibbs said as far as he was concerned, Hamlin was still race ready, and still a threat to win and qualify for the Chase.
Monday, he received an extra vote of confidence after being medically cleared of concussion symptoms, team officials said, adding that Hamlin will participate in a tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday as scheduled.
"I think Denny wants to stay after it and we have a chance to get some wins for FedEx,'' Gibbs said Sunday. "And who knows what's going to happen; we could get hot. I know he'll be the favorite at several of these racetracks we have down the stretch over these next nine weeks.
"Who knows, maybe a miracle in there. And you can't have a great comeback unless you're behind, so we'll just go after it and do the best we can.
"I think Denny feels that way, too. He was fired up for today. I felt like he was going to get after it today. So he's got a good attitude and we'll keep swinging."
Of course to qualify for the Chase, Hamlin must be ranked among the top-20 and hope to notch enough wins to earn one of the two Wild Card berths. He's currently 25th in points, 104 points behind 20th place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. And he will need to leapfrog Jeff Burton, Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya and Casey Mears to get to Stenhouse.
The points situation is just as tenuous at the top.
While Jimmie Johnson holds a comfortable 38-point and 41-point edge over Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, respectively, atop the championship, there has been a lot of weekly movement in the transfer spots.
As it stands now, 11th-ranked Kasey Kahne and 16th-ranked Tony Stewart would get the two Wild Card spots with a win apiece.
Toyota resurgence: After a string of Toyota engine problems dominated headlines early in the month, the manufacturer has come back swinging. Kenseth's win was the make's second in a row answering Martin Truex Jr.'s victory at Sonoma last week.
There were four Camrys in the top seven at Kentucky and two among the top five at Sonoma.
And Kenseth's victory gives Toyota seven trophies, which equals Chevy's series best. Ford has three.
Rain man: Bad weather has proven a good omen for Kenseth. Not only did he win Sunday's rain-postponed race at Kentucky, the last time a Sprint Cup Series race was postponed for rain ? the 2012 Daytona 500 ? Kenseth won also.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
4. Top-10s for Kurt Busch in last six races. He has seven on the season the most ever for Furniture Row Racing and there are still 19 races remaining.
5. Top-10 finishes for Clint Bowyer in the last six races. It's the best of any driver in that span and good enough to pull him to 41 points behind championship leader Johnson.
7. Positions both Brad Keselowski (33rd) and Greg Biffle (34th) improved after lengthy repairs in garage because of wreck on lap 47. They would have been 40th and 41st if not for the second effort.
182. Laps Jimmie Johnson led Sunday. It's the third time in the last four races he's led at least 100 laps. But he has only one win (Pocono) to show for the effort.
While Johnson -- who led the most laps and looked to have the dominant car -- missed an opportunity to massively pad his points lead with a win, he still gained on second place Carl Edwards, who had a mediocre 21st-place day. Johnson held a 25-point advantage on Edwards coming into Kentucky and now leads him by 38 points with nine races remaining to set the Chase field.
Penske Racing teammates Keselowski and Logano were the biggest movers in the standings. With his fourth-place finish, Logano moved up four positions and is now 10th -- the final guaranteed Chase position. Defending series champ Keselowski's unfortunate Kentucky showing dropped him four positions and he is now 13th on the outside looking in, but still a mere 14 points behind his teammate Logano.
Kurt Busch was another of the day's big winners, improving three positions in the championship to 14th and is only 16 points out of the top-10.
THEY SAID IT
"I thought he was slightly crazy when that happened.'' Kenseth said of crew chief Jason Ratcliff's call for gas only and no tires on last pit stop. It ended up being the call of the race.
"There was no reason to drive like an animal. I guess I was the only one to get that memo.'' -- Keselowski's reaction to being wrecked by Kurt Busch on a restart only 47 laps into the race.
"Hate that my mistake ruined @keselowski @gbiffle @RCR27PMenard and their teams day. Apologized 2 them all but mad at myself still." --- Kurt Busch on Twitter after the race.
"The No. 20 (Matt Kenseth) broke the pace car speed,which you aren't supposed to, but, they aren't calling guys on that so I need to start trying that in the future." ? Jimmie Johnson told PRN Radio after the race.
NASCAR's official start of summer comes at Daytona International Speedway with Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 (7:30 ET, TNT). Defending winner Tony Stewart could become the race's all-time winningest driver with a fifth victory. ... Stewart is the only repeat winner in Daytona's night race during the last decade with a diverse list of winners ranging from David Ragan (2011) to Sunday's runner-up at Kentucky, Jamie McMurray (2007). ... In the Cup Series stop there for the Daytona 500 season-opener, Danica Patrick won the pole position and Johnson claimed his second 500 win.
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