Hamlin faces tough road to the Chase

Is time running out for Denny Hamlin?

Hamlin finds himself in a precarious position. Hamlin missed four NASCAR Sprint Cup races earlier this year after suffering a fractured vertebra in a March 24 crash at Auto Club Speedway. Now, with 12 races remaining before NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Hamlin is 25th in the standings — and having difficulty making up ground.

Despite finishing eighth on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, he is still 110 points outside of the top 10 drivers, the group that will lock into the Chase after the season’s 26th race. That’s more than two full races.

Although Hamlin gained one position in the standings, he fell two more points behind 20th place, now held by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Drivers from 11th to 20th in the standings are eligible for two wild-card spots awarded to the drivers outside the top 10 but with the most wins.

That top-20 goal — Hamlin’s easiest entry into securing a Chase berth — remains a moving target, and Hamlin’s disappointment during the race spoke volumes about his current frustration.

“I know how to drive here,” Hamlin said in the closing stages at Pocono Raceway, where he had scored four wins in 14 starts before Sunday. “I’ve got nothing to work with.”

Toyota Racing Development, which supplies engines to Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, elected to adopt a more conservative approach by changing the rocker-to-valve-spring ratio to preserve the valve springs and increase reliability. The change came after two consecutive weeks of engine failures in the Toyota camp.

Doing so made it so that neither Hamlin nor his JGR teammates could compete against the Hendrick engines, which powered four of the top five finishers on Sunday. For the first time this season, a TRD-powered car failed to lead a lap or finish among the top five. Kyle Busch finished sixth, followed by Hamlin in eighth. Clint Bowyer (15th) was the top MWR Toyota.

For the second week, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth, who finished 23rd and 25th, respectively, had issues. Truex, who dropped oil on the track in the closing laps, radioed after the race, “I broke a valve spring or something on that restart. . . . It kept losing power from there on.”

Kenseth said he “just quit making power” and asked his spotter if there was smoke coming from his car similar to what he witnessed coming from Truex’s. Kenseth wondered aloud to his team over the radio, “I wonder if we broke the same thing.”

So far this season, Hamlin has been fortunate when it comes to engine reliability. But following the race on Sunday, he acknowledged he did not “have a winning car this weekend.” When asked how a reduction in horsepower affected, him Hamlin said he and his teammates were playing “defense on the straightaway, which is really tough.”

Dave Wilson, acting president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, USA, has vowed to fix the engine issues. For Hamlin, the effort can’t come soon enough, particularly with an engine-taxing track such as Michigan on the schedule for this weekend, as well as the races at Kentucky Speedway at the end of the month, Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July and a return to Pocono and Michigan in August.

Hamlin should be able to leapfrog over 24th-place Mark Martin, who will take several races off before the Chase begins. Even if Hamlin does battle through to 20th place there’s still the daunting task of winning races.

"We’ve got some great racetracks coming up for us,” Hamlin said. “Typically, during the summer we have a lot of really good racetracks for us, so very optimistic for our team."

Time will tell if he can make up the difference.

Here are five other drivers outside of the top 10 trying to gain positions and make the Chase:

1. Jeff Gordon (11th in the standings)

The four-time champion has been inconsistent this season. Although he has qualified decently well and has finished a as high as third three times, Gordon also has been caught in two wrecks and was sidelined when his suspension failed at Texas. But watching fellow 40-something Tony Stewart win at Dover was “a great motivator” for Gordon.

“We’ve not had the best of years, up to this point, but I think we’re just as capable as they are of winning races,” Gordon said. “That’s why you never give up, you never stop working. And this is a sport that anything can happen at any time, and so I think that run and that finish that Tony had is very encouraging for us. . . . I’m feeling pretty good about things right now.”

Gordon sits only two points outside of 10th. He feels confident that even if he can’t battle his way back into that group, that he should be a lock for a wild card and win at one of the next 12 tracks. He has been to Victory Lane at all of those, except Kentucky. 

2. Paul Menard (12th)

Menard has been in the top 12 since the race at Las Vegas in March. Menard, who recently extended his deal at Richard Childress Racing for three more years, was 10th in the standings entering Pocono and ran in the top 15 until he blew a tire on the last lap of the race. Menard’s best shot of breaking through and making his first Chase will be to regain the consistency he had earlier in the year. Traditionally, the summer months have been when the 32-year-old racer drops off. But Menard has been strong at intermediate tracks and posted his best result (eighth) at Auto Club Speedway, a venue similar to this weekend’s at Michigan.

3. Tony Stewart (13th)

Stewart has always been a slow starter, but his win at Dover appeared to revitalize his team. In the past two weeks, he posted his only top-five finishes of the season and those performances elevated Stewart from 20th to 13th in the standings. Stewart sits 17 points outside of the top 10. Although Stewart missed the 2006 Chase, he has qualified for NASCAR’s playoffs every other year since the program debuted in 2004. Even if he doesn’t make up those markers, he still has the Dover win to help him earn a wild-card berth. And with victories on 11 of the next 12 tracks hosting races, chances are Stewart will add to his win tally.

4. Kurt Busch (15th)

The only things standing between the 2004 champion and the Chase are 21 points and consistency. With the earlier fuel issues this season and chronic problems in the pits, Busch has endured disappointment on a weekly basis — and Pocono brought no exception with the over-the-wall performance. Although it would seem that it’s just a matter of time before Busch gets his breakthrough win — and a likely wild-card berth — quality control and the pit crew problems must be addressed. The good news? In 20 starts with Furniture Row Racing, Busch has posted eight top-10 finishes — the same number the team earned in its previous 193 starts before he joined the organization.

5. Martin Truex Jr. (17th)

Truex qualified for his second Chase last season but now is slowly slipping away from the top 10. Just when it seemed the team was getting on the right path, climbing to ninth after Charlotte, engine issues in the past two weeks have knocked Truex and his No. 56 team further from contention. Truex, who is 31 points outside the Chase, is surrounded in the standings by drivers with more career wins. Although Kurt Busch and Joey Logano (16th) are with new teams this season, both drivers have won more recently than Truex, whose one and only victory came six years ago at Dover. If it comes down to the wild-card situation, Truex, will have to learn to convert leading laps into wins. If not, it will haunt him as he waits for next year’s Chase.