NASCAR

After rocky week, Hamlin feeling good about Pocono

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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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LONG POND, Pa.

Denny Hamlin is counting down the races. Six races, six opportunities remain to earn bonus points prior to NASCAR’s version of the postseason, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

And given Hamlin’s penchant for Pocono, the No. 11 could leave Pennsylvania with a solid advantage.

“We feel like this is a place we need to get 10 points,” Hamlin said. “You look at the next five or six races, we feel like if we don’t win a couple of them, then we’ve taken a step back. I think we’re going to be okay. I think the first practice is going to be a good indication that we do have the speed.”

Hamlin qualified third for the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500, his eighth top-10 start in his career at the track. But that’s far from his only success at the venue. As a rookie in 2006, Hamlin swept both Pocono races from the pole, and he’s also won the last two Sprint Cup Series races on the 2.5-mile tri-oval.

For Hamlin, who is currently third in the Sprint Cup point standings and tied with Jimmie Johnson with a series-high five victories, the addition of 50 bonus points will go a long way when the Chase begins.

Hamlin just hopes his recent remarks about NASCAR officiating don’t catch up with him. He expects to race at the Cup level for a long time. After Hamlin was socked with a secret fine from the sanctioning body “for general negativity,“ he felt last week the cautions just didn’t fall his way.

"It made my last week long, I can tell you,“ Hamlin said. “Indy was the longest race ever trying to get a lucky dog that I never did get. They know how to make you pay -- one way or another."

“Honestly, I need them on my side as much as they need me. That’s one of the things, we’re getting ready to come up on some very important tracks for us, this one being one of them and we don’t need anything happening bad to us or getting penalized for anything on the race track so we have to be smart and get ready for the Chase coming up in just a few weeks.

Wait and see

Sam Hornish Jr. admitted at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week that he’s not sure what his future holds.

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Hornish qualified 15th for the Pocono 500. His best career Cup race finish (fourth) was posted at the 2.5-miler in this race last year. In his third full season in the Sprint Cup Series, he is currently 29th in the point standings. While he “definitely like to be back” in Cup next season and his representation has made inquiries with teams outside of Penske Racing, sponsorship has been a tough sell.

“If that doesn’t work, we’re going to take a look around at something else,” Hornish said. “I think that we have some great opportunities to make that happen.”

Roger Penske was a bit more optimistic. Penske said the company is “in the process of trying to put a sponsorship together” for Hornish.

“He knows that,” Penske said. “As you know, the market is tough, but we have lots of options and we’re a long way from saying that there’s nothing out there.

“We’re not going to run a fourth car. We need to get three solid cars. With Brad (Keselowski) coming up and a little more experience, maybe it will open up the testing next year and will help us.”

Survey says ...

Pocono Raceway is pleased with its two NASCAR Sprint Cup dates, thank you very much.

Despite a recent report at Yahoo.com which read, “So when (Dr. Joe) Mattioli says two Cup races a year is one too many for some tracks, including his own,” track president Brandon Igdalsky says his grandfather’s sentiment was taken out of context.

“Yes, very much so,” Igdalsky said. “We’re not giving up a date. I said, ‘Doc, are we giving up a date?’ And he answered, ‘What do you think?’”

Pocono has been on the NASCAR schedule since 1974 and began hosting two races a year in 1982.

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Two-time Cup Series champion Terry Labonte is expected to run three races this season for former owner Billy Stavola. Labonte will drive the No. 10 Chevrolet at Richmond, Charlotte and Texas. Cars and engines will be provided by Richard Childress Racing.

New kids

Billy Johnson was one of several youngsters shaking down cars at Rockingham Speedway this past week for Roush Fenway Racing.

Johnson, 23, who currently partners with Jack Roush Jr. on the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge tour, will make his Nationwide Series debut next Saturday at Watkins Glen. Johnson will drive the No. 6 Ford. Johnson, who drove the No. 61 Roush/Valvoline Mustang in the KONI Challenge Series in June, is a graduate of Cal State University Fullerton.

Other drivers at the Rockingham test included Ross Kenseth, Brandon McReynolds, Alli Owens and Jill George.

Numbers game

  • Elliott Sadler became the 21st driver in the history to win in the top three divisions in NASCAR. He’s inaugural winner of the Pocono truck race and pulled off the feat from the pole.
  • NASCAR debuted its new trial qualifying system for the trucks with three drivers on the track posting speeds at the same time. Thirty-eight trucks qualified for 36 positions in 40 minutes.
  • Jeff Burton topped the Sprint Cup happy hour chart with a lap of 166.936 mph.

Say what?

Aric Almirola, who could serve as a relief driver on Sunday, took a couple laps in the No. 24 Chevrolet as Jeff Gordon remains on baby watch. Almirola described the Hendrick Motorsports ride -- the fastest car in morning practice:

"It’s everything you expect a race car is supposed to be."

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