You have to wonder how many times Denny Hamlin has played out the final two weeks of the 2010 Chase in his head.
By now, you know the story just as well as Hamlin does: dominating the season's penultimate race at Phoenix, fuel mileage came into play and Hamlin and then-crew chief Mike Ford pitted for fuel late in the race to ensure that his car would make it to the end under power. Hamlin finished 12th, and Jimmie Johnson finished fifth, closing the gap between himself and Hamlin at the top of the standings. Hamlin was dejected.
Hamlin was still the points leader by 15, but qualified poorly at Homestead and spun and damaged his splitter early in the race. His team scrambled all race and scraped out a 14th place finish. Meanwhile, Johnson qualified sixth and finished second. He won by 39 points. Hamlin was even more dejected.
Hamlin was a non-factor in the Chase in 2011 and started working with a sports psychologist to help his attitude.
Now, as we enter the 2012 Chase, Hamlin's atop the points standings and brimming with positivity. Can you blame him? He ripped off back-to-back wins at Bristol and Atlanta, and hasn't finished outside the top 20 all season except for accidents or mechanical failures. Hamlin's in a prime spot to be in the same position that he was in 2010, and does anyone think the script won't change if that's the case?
Best Chase Track: It's Martinsville, but you probably already knew that too. Hamlin has four wins and 12 top 10s in 14 starts. Given that Martinsville is also Jimmie Johnson's strength, Hamlin has to beat him here.
Worst Chase Track: Dover, where Hamlin has an average finish outside the top 20 and only two top 10s to his credit. He hasn't been incredibly sharp at Chicagoland either, so if he can buttress Loudon (a track where he's good at) with good finishes at Chicago and Dover, watch out.
NB's Prediction: 3rd. This is going to be a three team race down to the wire, and Hamlin will be one of the involved parties. If he's ahead of Johnson after Martinsville, the seventh race of the Chase, it will be advantage, Hamlin.