Two steps forward, one giant step back for Denny Hamlin and his bid to qualify for this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™.
Last Sunday’s 36th-place Dover finished virtually wiped out the success he enjoyed – and points gained – at Darlington and Charlotte, Hamlin’s first two full races since his back injury in late March.
Hamlin’s only Chase opportunity will come through the Wild Card process. But to gain eligibility, he must reach a top-20 ranking. Seventy-six points out of 20th entering May’s Darlington race, Hamlin had cut the deficit to 53. He now trails 20th-place Ryan Newman by 74 markers.
Pocono would appear to offer Hamlin a great opportunity to regain momentum. It’s long been one of the Virginian’s best tracks – beginning with a sweep in 2006, Hamlin’s rookie of the year campaign. Hamlin dominates Pocono statistics: four victories, top Driver Rating of 115.1, series-best Average Running Position (9.1) and fastest Average Green Flag Speed (160.936 mph).
All well and good, but Hamlin, addressing media members last week, tossed out a caveat. Today’s Pocono, following repaving after the 2011 season, isn’t the same. Any advantage a driver enjoyed, he said, has vanished.
“We had a leg up; we had two legs up on everyone when we went there with the old pavement,” Hamlin said. “I think now we’re better than average but we’re not the best anymore at that track.”
A year ago, after repaving, Hamlin finished fifth in June’s race. He qualified second in August and led three laps but was eliminated in a late-race accident.
Qualifying remains Hamlin’s ace – especially on a new surface where track position is paramount. He’s qualified among the top 10 in eight consecutive Pocono events and won his second straight Coors Light Pole last weekend at Dover.
“Track position is total key,” he said. “And you have to be the fastest car.”