Hamlin struggles to keep Chase hopes alive
June 16, 2013, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Denny Hamlin did a great thing this weekend.
Many drivers paid tribute to the late Jason Leffler by donning decals in honor of “LefTurn” in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400, but none recalled Leffler's legacy with as much effort as Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx crew.
Leffler, a former Joe Gibbs Racing driver, previously donned the FedEx logo, so Hamlin’s team transformed his black-trimmed Toyota Camry to a replica of Leffler’s 2005 paint scheme ahead of the race at Michigan.
“It was an idea that I had to pay tribute to Jason in today’s race,” said Hamlin. “We had become friends over the past several years and had the same circle of friends, so it meant a lot to me to honor his memory.
“He was the reason FedEx came into the sport, so it kind of all made sense.”
While Hamlin’s heart was in the right place, his car wasn’t. The No. 11 struggled all day to find any sort of footing on the track, spending the majority of the day a lap down.
The team worked feverishly on pit road to bring Hamlin’s car at least a hint of competitiveness, but was unable to figure anything out by race-end.
"We changed everything,” said crew chief Darian Grubb. “We changed shocks, bump stops, everything and we never affected it really. So we’ll take it back to the shop, tear it all apart and see if we can find something.
The result was a 30th-place disappointment at a track where Hamlin has succeeded in the past, with two wins and five top-five finishes under his belt.
After a 34th-place finish at Dover two weeks ago, Hamlin needed to build off a top-10 at Pocono to get the ball rolling as he attempts to make his way into the top 20 in the point standings to be eligible for a Chase for the Sprint Cup wild card spot.
It just didn’t happen.
"I have no idea (what was wrong with the car),” said Grubb. “Just really, really loose in traffic. We couldn’t run within a second of what we ran in practice. I really don’t have a clue."
Hamlin’s return to the track after missing four races because of a back injury sustained in a wreck with Joey Logano at Auto Club Speedway has been all hit or miss. After getting back into the car for a brief run at Talladega before giving way to Brian Vickers, who drove to a 34th-place finish for which Hamlin received points, two consecutive top-fives at Darlington and Charlotte had many back on the Hamlin bandwagon as a win appeared imminent.
With an average finish of 24th over the past three races, a current standing of 26th in points and just 11 races left before the Chase begins, Hamlin’s chances continue to shrink.
What he needs right now is a win, and while he does have multiple wins at four of the remaining 11 tracks, he’d likely need to stand in Victory Lane two or three times to pull himself out of the deficit he finds himself in.
Considering just four drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch) have multiple wins through 15 races, the likelihood of a struggling driver reeling off a few wins in a row to finish out the season is low.
If there is a silver lining for Hamlin to be found, it’s that at this point last year, Jeff Gordon stood in 20th place with no wins, and ended up making the Chase after earning his lone victory at the second Pocono race.
That being said, nearly 100 points stand between Hamlin (299 points) and Kurt Busch (384 points) in 20th place.
It’ll be a tough spot for him to race his way out of, but don't except the hard-nosed Hamlin to give up his heard-earned reputation for resilience just yet.