In Denny Hamlin’s nine years of Cup driving the only time that he has failed to make the Chase was in 2005, his rookie year, and that was an impossible task as he only raced in seven races that season. But as it stands at the moment he might be facing a task equal in difficulty if he wants to make the Chase this year as with 12 races left to go he finds himself down in 25th position 110 points off 10th and with no wins.
For those of you who have been living under a rock when it comes to NASCAR news and goings on or have only discovered the sport in the past couple of weeks, the reason for Hamlin’s lowly position is down to injury. At the Auto Club 400 in March he crashed heavily into the inside wall in an area that wasn’t covered with the SAFER barrier and injured his lower back. More specifically he suffered an L1 compression fracture which meant that he missed the next four races, and only started Talladega before switching with Brian Vickers at the first caution.
Hamlin doesn’t need to worry about trying to make the Chase by finishing in the top 10 as unless there are multiple wrecks at every track from now until the Chase starts in Chicago that just so happens to take out everyone in front of him, it’s not going to happen. But where he has a very real chance at making the Chase is by getting wins and claiming a wildcard spot. In order to make the Chase as one of the two wildcards spots a driver must finish in top 20 and have the most wins of the drivers in positions 11th-20th.
Make no bones about it though this is still a very tough task as he is currently 74 points off 20th place. We all remember Jeff Gordon’s horrible run of luck last season where it looked very possible that he would miss out on the Chase, but in the end squeezed in on the very last race. At this point in the season last year Gordon was in 22nd place and was only 9 points off 20th place. In 2011 Brad Keselowski was also in 22nd before making the Chase as a wildcard after he went on to get two more wins in the second half of the season. Two drivers (Casey Mears and Greg Biffle) have both made the Chase as a wildcard from the 23rd spot with one win; but since the Chase started in 2004 no driver has made it from 25th at this point in the season.
Getting wins is something that is achievable for Hamlin, he has a good history at the remaining tracks and there is no better chance for him than this weekend at Michigan where he won in 2010 and 2011. Last season he also picked up back to back wins at Bristol and Atlanta but Hamlin won’t be relying on tracks where he traditionally does well, before the Pocono race he said:
“Obviously, every week I go out and drive as if I need the win, and it takes its toll, maybe, on your competitors because you don’t let as many pass you and things like that. We’re in a little bit different situation than everyone else is right now.”
One thing that Hamlin has going for him at the moment is that of the drivers in positions 11th-20th only one of them, Tony Stewart, has a win to his name. Of course there is every chance that this situation won’t last but with the dominance of the rest of the Joe Gibbs Racing team together with Hendrick Motorsport there is a chance that no drivers outside of these teams will pick up a win for the rest of the season. But anything is possible in NASCAR and Hamlin is fully aware of what he needs to do:
“I’m going to need to get two wins, if I get one, then it will put me in the mix, but then I’d have to leapfrog those guys on points, and, with the bad finish that I had last week, it’s going to be pretty hard to do. I’m going to have to rely on, I think, two wins and then barely getting in the top 20 at the end.”
Hamlin certainly has the speed, his two pole positions since his return are a testament to that and from his point of view the reduction in engine power to the Toyota engines couldn’t have come at a worse time. But write Hamlin off at your peril. In only five races since his return he has already climbed the standings from 31st and with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work and it would surprise no one if he was lining up at Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase.