When Denny Hamlin’s back injury kept him from racing in four whole races in April I said it would be a tall task for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to climb up into Chase contention.
“It’s going to be difficult for Hamlin to make the Chase,” I opined in the CLNS NASCAR Roundtable at the beginning of May. “He’s going to have to win multiple races to get back into the hunt for the top 20 and even then there could be drivers ahead of him with more wins. It’s going to be almost impossible, but it would be a heck of a story if he does pull it off.”
His only hope, as I noted, would be to win a few races and hope he launched himself into the top 20 in points to qualify for one of the two “Wild Card” spots for the chase. Hamlin currently sits 26th in Sprint Cup Series points, 239 points back from point leader Jimmie Johnson. More importantly, Hamlin is 85 markers back of Kurt Busch who sits 20th in points.
Hamlin will roll into Kentucky Speedway in 11 days looking to capture a victory to spark a run at the chase. He was third at the 1.5-mile track in Sparta last year, and led a portion of the middle part of the race.
“We had a good run. Our car was pretty good through the middle stages of the race,” he said after the race. “We lost the lead with 70 to go or so. It seemed we had to go into fuel save mode and our car started going back towards the lead. And we came in and once we did that pit stop, we made a charge to the front. But we knew we had to save fuel the entire last run. There was nothing I could do.
“As much as I wanted to keep the 2 honest and run him hard, I had to run a certain pace, and that's all I was allowed to do if we were going to make it to the end.”
Hamlin could get a little luck to roll his way this year in the Bluegrass State and start a run that would be one of the best storylines in NASCAR this season.
In order to make that run a reality though, Hamlin knows he has to win, and win a few races. There are 11 races until the Chase starts, and Hamlin’s hourglass is quickly running out of sand. It doesn’t mean the situation is completely desperate for Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team at JGR though.
Hamlin is decent at Kentucky, and has the ability to lean on teammate Kyle Busch who seems to have Kentucky figured out. Hamlin also runs well at Indy and is always a threat to win at Pocono.
But in order to compete at Kentucky—like he did last season—Hamlin knows getting out front is a key.
“Once you get back in traffic here, can you have the best car in the world, and you're just not going to make up any ground,” he said after the 2012 race at Kentucky. “You'll pass one or two cars, but you're not just going to charge to the front like you would at other racetracks.”
As for one of my co-writers at CLNS, Bryan, well, he thought six weeks ago that Denny could pull it off.
“Adam, you don't give Denny any credit,” he wrote. “Dude can drive a racecar, and he's been on the brink of winning a championship for a couple years now. If anyone can come back from something like this, it would be Denny Hamlin. He's gone on stretches where he reels off wins left and right before, and that's exactly what he'll have to do. It's going to be tough, but I think Hamlin will be able to race his way into the Chase.”
Denny Hamlin needs to win. And I see Kentucky as a great place for him to get on the winning trail to start a run toward the chase. Will he? We have 11 days to see.