Friday 5: With pressure on, time for Denny Hamlin to perform

Dustin Long

For all that Denny Hamlin has accomplished, what he does this weekend at ISM Raceway could alter the narrative for one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers without a Cup championship.

Among the favorites to win the title when the playoffs began in September, Hamlin is in danger of seeing his championship hopes end with Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hamlin trails rival Joey Logano, a driver he’s feuded with in these playoffs and over the years, by 20 points for the final spot in the Championship 4 field despite a stellar season that ranks among the best in Hamlin’s 14 seasons in Cup.

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Hamlin is in this position after a crash last weekend at Texas dropped him from a transfer spot. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way into the championship race at ISM Raceway, winning that event in 2014 and then claiming the title a week later.

While the pressure is on now, Hamlin professed before the playoffs began “pressure doesn’t get to me, nothing like it probably did 10, 12 years ago.”

Hamlin’s best chance for a title before this season came in 2010 when he led the points going into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway but had to make an extra pit stop for fuel late. That allowed Jimmie Johnson and Harvick to close the points gap.

Miami weekend started with the press conference for the title contenders. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin. Harvick said of Hamlin: “He definitely seems like the most nervous.”

While Hamlin still led going into Miami, he had a poor qualifying effort and an incident early in the race that doomed his title hopes, allowing Johnson to win his fifth consecutive title in a row.

That late-season collapse will always be a part of Hamlin’s history. He made the championship race in 2014 but hasn’t been back since.

If he doesn’t advance this year, it does not diminish the two Daytona 500 wins, two Southern 500 victories and 36 career Cup victories, but it leaves a gap for a driver who likely is Hall of Fame bound (just maybe not as soon as others without a championship). Only Junior Johnson (50 Cup wins) and Mark Martin (40) have more Cup wins than Hamlin and also not a title.

“I’ve seen it all,” Hamlin told NBC Sports before the playoffs of his postseason disappointments. “Any way I can get taken out of a championship battle, I’ve had happen.

“But I know as long as I prepare each week, the way I’ve been doing, as long as I do the work during practices, give the right feedback like I’ve been doing, we’re going to be fine. That makes me rest easier than anything.”

Those experiences help Hamlin, who will turn 39 the day after the title race. While it’s easy to wonder what might have been, Hamlin says he’s moved past that in regards to 2010.

“It probably took a year to get over that,” Hamlin said earlier this week at Toyota’s national headquarters in Plano, Texas. “After that, you’re so week-to-week, you can’t let stuff linger, and if you do, you’re not doing your job 100 percent.”

Few thought Hamlin would be in this position based on his season and his playoffs. His five wins trail only teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the most this season. Hamlin has finished third or better in 10 of the season’s 34 races. In the playoffs, Hamlin has a win and five top-five finishes in eight races. Yet, that might not be good enough after finishing 28th at Texas.

Hamlin, the NBA fan, can look to LeBron James and the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers for inspiration this weekend.

Hamlin says his favorite moment in sports came in the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that year. Golden State led the best-of-seven series three games to one before Cleveland rallied to force a seventh game.

Late in that series-deciding contest came the play that Hamlin says “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“(Andre) Igoudala fast break at the end of the game, and LeBron chasing him down,” Hamlin said. “If (Igoudala) makes that basket, it’s over. LeBron chases him down, beats it off the backboard, and they (later) go down and score and change the whole game.

“Anyone down 3-1, they always talk about the odds and statistics of how impossible it is to come back, but that was the moment that someone just wanted it more.”

Such is the position Hamlin is in. Can he provide a memorable moment Sunday?

2. A NEW APPROACH

Austin Dillon’s 13th-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface, but it was significant in other ways.

Dillon’s result marked one of his team’s better finishes on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

“I feel like we need to try to find a baseline that we can kind of go to, and we haven’t had that this year,” Dillon said before the race. “We have had some fast cars but haven’t been able to race very well with them. We’re trying to kind of tune our cars to more a race-style setup. (At Texas) and Homestead we’re going to try to develop a little more of that baseline.”

The Richard Childress Racing cars were set up with less downforce easier in the season, giving them more speed in qualifying, but when they fell into the pack during a race, the cars were more unstable and harder to drive.

Dillon qualified in the top 10 in eight of the nine 1.5-mile races before Texas, including a pole at Chicago, but never finished better than 10th in any of those races. He showed that speed also at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in March, winning the pole but failing to score any stage points despite the favorable track position and pit stall.

At Texas last weekend, Dillon qualified 21st, his worst starting spot at a 1.5-mile track this year. He joked ahead of qualifying that if they were any better than 15th to 20th, “we will have tricked ourselves.”

The point being is the team put more downforce in the car to make it more stable in traffic, knowing it would hurt the qualifying speed.

“It’s been pretty obvious where our cars are and what they’ve had,” Dillon said of the setup. “There’s a happy medium in there. You see some of the guys that make it work and the other teams that don’t even try to run that concept. The Chevys that are fast don’t seem to be doing what we were doing.”

Another change is that crew chief Danny Stockman will give way to Justin Alexander after this season. Alexander was at Texas and will be with at the track the final two races to assess the team.

3. LOOKING AHEAD

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishes the season with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s looking ahead to 2020 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

Stenhouse joins JTG in a virtual swap that sees Chris Buescher taking over Stenhouse’s ride in the No. 17 next year.

Stenhouse says he’s begun preparing for his ride by talking to Ernie Cope, competition director at JTG Daugherty Racing, and team owner Tad Geschickter after races.

Stenhouse says he’s discussed with Cope and Geschickter “the things that they fought through (with the car) in the weekend, kind of compare that to what I’m feeling and then also just looking at the potential that they have.

“I thought both their cars had really good short-run speed at Martinsville. We had better long run speed. Going over there it’s like, ‘Alright, how do we get that long-run better and keep that short-run speed?’ I look at Kansas … we raced around (Buescher) a lot and felt like in the end they were probably a little bit better overall.

“I’m interested to see how Phoenix goes. We ran decent there in their spring, but (JTG Daugherty Racing’s) short track stuff, I feel like, seems better than what we have right now and that’s an area that I feel like needs to get better.”

Until Stenhouse finished last after a crash last weekend at Texas, he had placed in the top 20 in six consecutive races, his longest stretch since 2017 when he won two races and made the playoffs.

“I am focused on making sure we finish the job here,” Stenhouse said of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. “We’ve had some solid runs. We haven’t had any stellar runs, but we’ve had solid runs since the announcement came out in Charlotte. Just looking to continue that … and end on a decent note.”

4. BETTER HELP

One of the issues with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, is that its pointed nose made it more challenging to push as compared to the Fords and Toyotas, which each had flatter noses.

While Chevrolet won at Daytona (Justin Haley in July) and at Talladega (Chase Elliott in the spring), the nose on the Camaro ZL1 1LE that Chevy teams will use in 2020 should prove beneficial at those tracks.

“It was definitely a challenge for us being able to push like some of our competitors were doing,” Elliott said. “I think all the drivers wanted (a flatter nose). We’re just lucky that Chevrolet saw it and wanted to make an effort and try to make it a little better. I think they did. We’ll see when we get to Daytona how it affects things, but I certainly think with all the pushing and how aggressive restarts are … hopefully that helps us.”

Cars pushing one another could become more important at those tracks in 2020. The Talladega playoff race showed more cars could form a two-car tandem and pull away briefly from the pack. With the rules stable for next season, teams will have more time to maximize that, and the tandem could play greater role in those races next year.

5. LAST CHANCE

Chevrolet will need a big day Sunday from Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott to avoid missing the Cup championship race for a third year in a row.

Chevrolet last had a team racing for the Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh series crown.

In 2017, the Chevy teams of Elliott and Johnson were eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway. Last year, Elliott was eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway.

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