Denny Hamlin’s on the right track. Tony Stewart needs to get untracked.
That’s the situation for both drivers in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, a race neither has won.
Hamlin returned from the disabled list earlier this month at Darlington Raceway and finished second in his first full race since suffering back injuries in late March. He needs to reach the top 20 in order to parlay one or more victories into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Wild Card.
So far, so good. Hamlin ranked 31st, 76 points out of 20th entering the Bojangles’ Southern 500. He cut the deficit to 61 points and now ranks 27th.
Hamlin finished second in both of last year’s Charlotte races and rides a streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes.
Things are bit more complicated for Stewart. He’s closer to Wild Card territory – 21st, five points behind Jeff Burton – but has yet to build momentum. In fact, this is the three-time champion’s worst start since becoming a Sprint Cup competitor.
Stewart never has entered the season’s 12th race without a top-five finish. His single top 10 – eighth at Phoenix – is an 11-race low. Until this year, Stewart’s worst 11-race points ranking was 18th in 2010 but he recovered to make the Chase.
Summer, when temperatures rise and track surfaces become slick, is prime time for Stewart. The 47-time Sprint Cup winner counts at least one victory at all but one of the tracks (Kentucky) remaining before the post season begins.
Stewart has won at Charlotte, but not in the spring. He has just one Coca-Cola 600 top-10 finish – sixth in 2007 – in his most recent eight races. His best finish, third, came in 2001. Stewart’s next top-five finish will be his 175th and will tie Bill Elliott for 17th on the Sprint Cup all-time list.