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Despite odds, Hamlin won't give up Chase hopes

June 24, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Despite odds, Hamlin won't give up Chase hopes
Currently sitting in 25th place, Denny Hamlin is running out of time but remains focused

SONOMA, Calif. -- Denny Hamlin still had grass on his drivers suit as he debriefed with his Joe Gibbs Racing team following a frustrating Sunday afternoon at Sonoma Raceway.

“That happens when you wreck,’’ Hamlin offered, shaking his head.

Typically a championship contender, Hamlin looked disappointed and dejected Sunday afternoon.

He knows the opportunities are dwindling for him to race himself into NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup post-season. And after missing four races recovering from a back injury, he is understandably feeling a certain sense of urgency.

Sunday’s outing on the 1.99-mile Sonoma road course didn’t help matters.

Although he ran among the top-10 early in the race, Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota was hit from behind by Tony Stewart midway through the event, sending him hard into the Turn 7 tire wall. He went off track again later in the race avoiding another incident and ultimately finished 23rd, his Camry beaten, his mojo battered, his driver’s suit littered with dust and grass.

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“I said before the weekend started, I get run over and spun every year,’’ Hamlin said. “Tony (Stewart) was just the guy today. He didn’t do it on purpose. We were trying to pass someone, that’s it.’’

Still, it contributed to Hamlin’s third finish of 20th or worse in the last four races and he now sits 25th in the Sprint Cup standings with two and a half months left to set the 12-driver Chase field. His best shot at the postseason is to get among the top-20 in the standings and win a race or two to secure one of the two Wild-Card berths.

He’s 83 points behind 20th place Jeff Burton and is perfectly aware it’s a deep hole to dig out of.

“I’d have to have a lot of stuff go my way that’s for sure,’’ Hamlin said. “Once we get past this race here, you could say our wheelhouse is coming up. But still we’re not gaining anything on 20th place.

“We need a lot of help and a lot of stuff go to our way, honestly. But we’re not running as strong as the Chase guys right now so you’ve got to earn it. You can’t just expect other guys to make mistakes.’’

Hamlin insists that he feels fine physically inside the race car, despite suffering a broken vertebrae in an accident at Auto Club Speedway in March. And he certainly looked in fine form when he initially returned to competition full-time in May.

He finished runner-up at Darlington, S.C. in his first full race back then fourth the next week in the sport’s longest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. He even won back-to-back pole positions at Charlotte and then Dover, Del.

After making it look easy, Hamlin has had tough times since.

“I feel fine,’’ Hamlin insisted. “There’s nothing I feel inside the car that’s keeping me from performing better. But we missed the setup a couple weeks and had bad stuff happen. It’s just frustrating we can’t get a finish.’’

Hamlin said initially that if he didn’t qualify for the Chase, he might consider sitting the late season out in order to allow his back to heal better.

But Sunday, he didn’t see that as a likely possibility.

“Not until, it (making the Chase) absolutely can’t happen, would I even think about it,’’ Hamlin said.

“My physical status at this point is not keeping me from performing well. It’s other things at this point.

“I don’t think my strategy changes at all. I continue to try and win every week and do all I can. I’m just trying to get a good finish at this point. It seems like these road course races are just free-for-alls.’’

In the meantime, Hamlin stressed that his team just needs to get back on track.

“They’re performing better than us and that’s the benchmark we need to set ourselves at is our teammates,’’ Hamlin said. “We should be able to run with them and they didn’t get good finishes for different reasons but we’ve been on the tail-end of the trio the past few weeks.

“Of course, you could argue first few weeks back, we were the best car. So it’s circumstantial and I hate to get all emotional over a couple bad weeks but it’s obviously something we can’t afford at this point.’’

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