By Reid Spencer
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DOVER, Del. -- Denny Hamlin's quest to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- despite missing four races because of a compression fracture to his first lumbar vertebra -- is one of the most compelling stories of the 2013 racing season.
But is it a realistic goal? To qualify for one of the wild card spots, Hamlin must be in the top 20 in the driver standings after 26 races. He also must win at least one race, probably two.
The top 20 shouldn't be an issue, given the speed and strength Joe Gibbs Racing has shown this season. Since Talladega in early May, where he started the race and turned the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers at the first opportunity, Hamlin has climbed to 24th in points.
Hamlin has 14 races to gain four more spots, and he's starting on the pole in Sunday's FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover.
The wins are another matter. One might think two events at Pocono, where Hamlin swept a pair of races from the pole as a rookie in 2006, would provide an excellent opportunity.
But Hamlin says the recent repaving of the 2.5-mile triangular track, where the Cup series races next week and Aug. 4, has taken away the edge he had there.
"We had a leg up ... we had two legs up on everyone when we went there with the old pavement," Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service. "I think now we're better than average, but we're not the best anymore at that track. But it's definitely a place that we have performed well. Even after it got paved we still performed pretty well. Yeah, it is a track I look forward to.
"Really, for me, I think that when they changed the track and they paved it, it changed everything. It really was like a whole new race track. Same with Kansas and Michigan -- all of these tracks, as soon as they pave them, they took one track and they just really threw it out and you've got a whole other surface, new setups, new way of driving style every single time. I think that's the challenge for us. We've got to really learn that race track again."
Because passing is more difficult on the new Pocono surface, track position will be crucial. That may be good news for Hamlin, who will be trying for his third straight Sprint Cup pole next weekend at the Tricky Triangle.
AID TO OKLAHOMA
In a busy week between last Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 and the Dover race weekend, Jimmie Johnson saw first-hand the devastation caused by tornados in Oklahoma, the native state of his wife Chani.
"I was certainly shocked and floored by what I saw," Johnson said Friday at Dover. "Everyone says that television doesn't do it justice, and we were able to go in person and see the damage and what a tornado can do.
"Man, it really got my attention. ... I met a child that was in one of those schools, and I could still see on his face and in his eyes the fear that he had and he still looked like that today. It really hits you deep to meet the people, see the damage and some ways kind of imagine in your mind what they went through."
Johnson did more than just visit. The Jimmie Johnson Foundation is providing funds for tornado relief, and Johnson primary sponsor, Lowe's Home Improvement, has pledged $1 million to the cause.
"I grew up where the ground shook in Southern California (earthquakes) and was always petrified of tornados," Johnson said. "And then where we live on the east coast, there might be one close by. But marrying Chani and being in the beltway for tornados, I'm scared every time we go home to visit.
"We had to leave Thursday and get out of there as fast as we could because one was coming, or storms were coming and there ended up being a couple. And it was odd, because I got on the plane to fly out and I'm leaving my family behind. They're staying there with Chani's parents this weekend. So I'm like 'Oh, my gosh, I'm so torn because there's something bad coming, but I'm leaving my girls behind.' "
ALLMENDINGER BACK IN PENSKE STOCK CAR
Fresh from a seventh-place finish in last Sunday's 97th Indianapolis 500, where he led 23 laps in his debut, AJ Allmendinger will return to a Penske Racing stock car in two Nationwide Series road course races this year, the team announced Saturday.
Allmendinger will drive the No. 22 Penske Ford at Road America on June 22 and at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Aug. 17.
"I think this is a great opportunity for us to have AJ drive the No. 22 Discount Tire Ford," owner Roger Penske said in a team release. "He is a great talent on road courses and has been doing a great job for Team Penske already this year in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
"With his stock car experience and his road course experience, we think this is the perfect opportunity for him and for the team."
Allmendinger hasn't driven a stock car for Penske since he lost his ride in the No. 22 Sprint Cup car after a failed drug test last year. Suspended by NASCAR, Allmendinger earned reinstatement through the sanctioning body's Road to Recovery program and has competed in four Sprint Cup races this season in the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet SS owned by James Finch.
Allmendinger has eight starts in the Nationwide Series, the last coming at Phoenix in 2008. The race at Mid-Ohio will mark the first visit there from any of NASCAR's top three touring series.