Hamlin, Logano look to gain ground at Martinsville

Engine issues have Joey Logano sitting 29th in the standings

Every race weekend, NASCAR makes the top 12 drivers in the points standings available to the media. Friday at Martinsville Speedway, the rundown included Kevin Harvick at 10:15 a.m., Kyle Busch at 10:30 and Jimmie Johnson at 11:30.

Nowhere to be found on the list, however, was Denny Hamlin or Joey Logano. That's because five races into the season, Hamlin sits 21st in the standings, Logano 29th.

To be sure, Hamlin is lucky to be even that high after back-to-back finishes of 33rd and 39th. So far in 2011, Hamlin's yet to record a top five, has only one top 10 and has finished on the lead lap just twice in five races.

If Hamlin's season to this point has been a bad dream, Logano's has been "Nightmare on Elm Street, Parts 1-5". Sliced Bread's best finish in 2011 is 23rd. He has three of those to go along with a 25th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway and a 33rd at Phoenix.

Though he is qualifying well – his average starting position is 14.2 – mistakes and/or mechanical issues have doomed him just about every week. He had his engine fail at Phoenix, had another engine sputter at Bristol and last week in California his crew swapped out yet another motor after discovering an issue just prior to the race. Instead of starting third, where he qualified, Logano had to go to the back of the field.

If it sounds like a lot of engine talk, that's because there have been an abundance of problems in that area for JGR. Through five races, the team has had three engine failures and swapped out no fewer than three motors prior to races.

According to Busch, the team has diagnosed what led to Hamlin's engine failing last Sunday in Fontana and why the team decided to change Logano's motor just prior to the race.

"I know there were some valve issues," Busch said, though he wouldn't elaborate any further. "It's something that at least we know what happened and where the source of the problem is. Anytime that you can figure all that out, you're moving forward."

While it's better to have a problem now than in September, when a single failure will likely squash all hope of a championship, the resulting impact is that Hamlin and Logano have a lot of ground to make up if they're even to be included in that championship mix.

Already, Logano faces a very steep climb, and not just the 64 points that stand between him and Matt Kenseth in 10th. More than that, it's that Logano must climb over drivers like Jeff Burton, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon – themselves outside the top 10.

Compounding matters, Logano backed his car into the wall during practice on Friday at Martinsville. That forced him to go to a backup car.

Hamlin's road to the Chase isn't nearly quite as daunting, especially considering the next two tracks set up well for him. He's the defending winner at both Martinsville and Texas, the latter being the better indicator of whether JGR has truly figured out its engine woes.

And they had better, sooner rather than later.

Since the Chase field expanded to 12 in 2007, an average of nine drivers in the top 12 after seven races went on to qualify for the Chase. In simpler terms, history dictates that 75 percent of those drivers in the top 12 after next week's race at Texas will make the Chase.

That being said, a look back at the standings from one year ago found Hamlin sitting 18th after Race No. 7. And all he went on to do is win eight races and nearly unseat Johnson.

"It's been frustrating because Mike [Ford, crew chief] has worked hard to make sure we're competitive each week, but we just haven't had the luck," Hamlin said. "Luckily, we have some good tracks for us coming up, and hopefully we can put together a few good weeks and get that first win. Martinsville is a great place to start that."