The comeback was right on schedule.
Denny Hamlin knew perfectly well he had to make up for lost time after a nasty wreck kept him out of four races in April. As he creeped back toward the top 20 in points in May, he found himself running better than usual last week at Dover, a track he has struggled at in the past.
Likely needing two wins to claim a wildcard spot in the Chase, Hamlin was on the pole at Dover and led 41 laps. But his run of bad luck continued.
Hamlin blew a tire and crashed hard into the wall, ending his day 20 laps before the checkered flag. A potential top-five finish turned into a painful 34th and another setback.
“It was frustrating because we were making big strides from a numbers standpoint,” Hamlin said. “That one bad finish took us all the way back to where we started again, now with less races to do it. You just can’t just cant miss races and expect to be where you want to be in points. It’s just not possible.”
With 13 races left before the Chase, Hamlin finds himself in 26th place in the points standings. Because qualifying was rained out on Friday — another bit of misfortune — Hamlin will start 17th in today’s Party in the Poconos 400.
If he is going to make an improbable charge into the postseason, it might have to begin here at Pocono Raceway.
Hamlin needs to get at least one win to get into the wildcard discussion.
“If I get one, it’ll put me in the mix,” he said. “But then I’ll have to leapfrog guys on points. And with the bad finish (at Dover), that’s going to be hard to do. We’re going to have to rely on two wins and barely get into that top 20 at the end.”
On one hand, Pocono has arguably Hamlin’s most successful track, winning there four times in 14 career starts.
On the other, all of them came between 2006-10, and the repaving of the track before last season means that new tactics are needed to succeed.
“It’s a completely different racetrack,” Hamlin said. “When you put down new pavement, it’s all different. Your setups are no longer the same. You have to learn all over again.
“At Pocono, we still run really well here. I’m optimistic. With the way we’ve been running, we can win any given week. And we’ve got little over 10 (races) here to make it happen.”
It’s a tough situation for a driver who is used to contending for the Sprint Cup crown. But on a few levels, Hamlin is happy to have the opportunity this season, even if the odds are long.
A disappointing start to 2013 got worse in the fifth race as Hamlin was injured in a frightening crash on the final lap of the Auto Club 400 in California.
He suffered a compression fracture in his back and there was some uncertainty about how long he would be out of action.
Hamlin ultimately missed four races before easing back into his car last month at Talladega. He drove for just the first part of the race to get credit for a handful of points before being replaced in the car by teammate Brian Vickers.
A week later, he looked to back in top form, finishing second at Darlington. He followed that up with a fourth-place finish at Charlotte and was in line for another big day at Dover before he cut a tire.
“We’ve had to reassess our goals but also take into consideration that was the second-best I’ve run at that track,” Hamlin said. “Had we just not run over something, we had a shot at a win. At least I feel like I’ve turned a corner at that racetrack.
“Every week I go out now, I’m going to drive as though I need the win. That takes a toll on you competitors because you don’t let as many past you, but we’re in a little different situation than everyone else right now.”
Adding a further sting to last week’s issues was that the win went to Tony Stewart, who will be one of Hamlin’s top opponents for one of the two wildcard spots.
In other words, the clock is ticking.
Last year, Hamlin won back-to-back races just before the Chase began. Repeating that feat could be enough to qualify him once again, but he’d prefer not to make things quite that dramatic.
“We’ve got some really good ones down the stretch, but you don’t want to wait until there are three races left and you need to win two,” Hamlin said. “That’s pressure for sure.”