DOVER, Del. — Denny Hamlin has tried to learn to love Dover.
He just can’t. Not yet, at least.
Maybe Hamlin has to learn to win at Dover before he can truly embrace the mile concrete oval.
Hamlin has been tormented for years by the track and voiced his disdain for Dover as finishes in the 30s or worse piled up. Hamlin also knows he can’t focus on the past disappointments. He has to conquer his Dover demons and try and win there if he wants to keep his long shot bid to make Chase alive.
Winning the pole for Sunday’s race was a nice start.
Hamlin, actually, has won the last two poles at Dover and parlayed his top spot into an eighth-place finish in the September race. The top-10 snapped a streak of three straight double-digit finishes at the Monster Mile. Hamlin had a four-race stretch from 2007-09 where he finished no better than 36th.
Those are usually the results for a driver like Casey Mears, not someone like Hamlin, who is always in the thick of the championship hunt.
His average Dover finish of 19.6 is the worst of any track.
But two poles and a top 10 could be the start of a new era for Hamlin.
“We possibly could have turned the corner here,” Hamlin said. “We’ll actually see the results on Sunday.”
Hamlin needs a big payoff in the form of a checkered flag at the 400-mile race. Hamlin’s four-race absence because of his back injury has him needing wins to make the Chase and race for his first career championship.
Hamlin’s fourth-place finish last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway moved him up three spots to 24th in the standings, 53 points out of 20th position, where he’d need to be to be eligible for one of two wild-card slots in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He is 97 points out of the top 10 and an automatic berth in the Chase.
Hamlin is ready drive for wins, not just a solid points day.
“We’re going to need to win races, so we’re going to do everything we can to try to get that,” he said. “I”ll be as aggressive as I can, so I’m treating this as more of an offensive race than a defensive one, for sure.”
He’s in a hole after being sidelined for four races with a compression fracture in his lower spine following a March 24 crash involving former teammate Joey Logano. His Joe Gibbs Racing team has done all it can to make him comfortable in the No. 11 Toyota. He switched up his seat belt configuration, had air bags stuffed into the driver’s seat to assist with comfort and there’s padding to help support his still achy back.
“I’m pretty comfortable right now, really as comfortable as I’ve been,” Hamlin said.
The adjustments to his seat certainly haven’t affected his performance. Hamlin has moved up seven spots to 24th place in the standings since his return. JGR teammate Kyle Busch is the only driver 11th to 20th in the standings with a victory.
Hamlin, who won five times last season, has 20th in sight and one of his favorite tracks up next — Pocono Raceway. He has four career wins at Pocono.
“We’re going to have to capitalize on our money tracks,” Hamlin said. “We’re going to have to win at those race tracks, and sneak a few in here and there when we don’t expect it. We’re doing everything we can. If we come up short, then we come up short.”
Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson are the only two drivers to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup every year they’ve been eligible.
The Chase may as well have already started for Hamlin.
Not only does he need to win, he has to hope that many former Cup champions stuck in the 11th to 20th spots also don’t drive their way into Victory Lane. Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart are among the drivers who need a win to help solidify a wild-card spot.
“If you go for wins, then you’re going to run well and finish consistent,” Busch said.
With the way Hamlin has been running, he should crack the top 20.
One big win sure would help.
“We just need to win everything we can,” he said.