After a incident at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., early on in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season sidelined Denny Hamlin for four races, but the driver returned to action — or at least made a semi-return — at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedweay in early May, determined to make up for lost time and work himself back into Chase for the Sprint Cup contention. But, so far, things aren’t looking so good.
When Hamlin made his return at Talladega, he didn’t run the full race. He started the event behind the wheel of his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, but then gave up the seat early in the race to Brian Vickers, who was on standby. The driver change was a planned one, as Hamlin would receive the points the No. 11 car earned with its finish as the driver who started the race in the car. But just like Hamlin’s return has gone, overall, the Talladega plan didn’t quite work out. Turns out, the No. 11 wouldn’t finish that race, regardless of driver, as Vickers was caught up in one of those infamous Talladega wrecks.
Hamlin has been behind the wheel of the No. 11 ever since, running complete races — that is when mechanical issues or wrecks haven’t ended his day early. The Sprint Cup circuit most recently visited Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky., this past Saturday. Another race, another day ended prematurely for Hamlin and the No. 11 team.
Hamlin even said he had his “bell rung” in his most recent crash at Kentucky. If we’re talking figuratively, that’s not the only bell ringing for Hamlin. When the driver returned from his spinal injury, the goal was to get himself back into the top-20 in the championship points standings while winning as many races as possible to, hopefully, grab one of the two wild card spots into the Chase for the Sprint Cup post season. The bell may not be ringing, just yet, on any chance of that happening, but if not, it’s warming up.
Following his most recent incident, Hamlin sits 25th in the championship points standings, 104 points outside the top-20. He’s still winless this season. If he and the No. 11 team get things turned around and avoid the bad luck that has also seemed to plague them all year, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for Hamlin to turn in multiple wins in the nine races that remain until the cutoff to get into the Chase. After all, he’s been known before to turn in a string of several wins in a short period of time. But getting into the top-20 within the next nine races? That’s a different story altogether.
Hamlin’s more than two full races outside the top-20, points-wise. That’s an insurmountable gap to erase in nine races. So is Hamlin’s season shot? Yes and no. He can continue on and go back to winning races as he has in years past. But contending for the 2013 Sprint Cup? I thought he had a shot upon his return a couple months ago, but now I think that ship has sailed. And that’s a 12-man ship that I don’t think Hamlin’s going to be on board this year.
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