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From the Notebook: Hamlin struggles to find the way

August 25, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

Winless Bowyer closest to top 10; Keselowski, Penske continue climb together

No one, least of all Denny Hamlin himself, expected last year's Sprint Cup championship runner-up to be in the position he's in, mired in a string of bad finishes and on the verge of being eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his six-year career.

Hamlin, who won a league-best eight times last season, has only won once in 2011. That's a sliver of light on his otherwise gloomy horizon, because going into this weekend's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hamlin's currently locked into the Chase, in the 12th and final position, based on his win at Michigan in June.

Standings

Pos. 11-20
Pos.DriverPointsWins
12.B. Keselowski 642 2
13.G. Biffle 636 0
14.D. Hamlin 635 1
15.A. Allmendinger 632 0
16.M. Martin 627 0
17.K. Kahne 623 0
18.P. Menard 617 1
19.J. Logano 610 0
20.D. Ragan 604 1

"It just seems like we've been very fortunate that the guys around us either haven't won a race or on days we struggle they have a bad race," Hamlin, the philosopher, said. "Any other circumstances and we'd be in big trouble right now. But I'm still glad to be in our spot than anyone else's at this point.

"We just need to figure out how to finish races and that carries on my shoulders as much as it carries on anyone's."

Hamlin has only two DNFs in 23 races, but he has six results of 25th or worse.

And Hamlin's mood becomes even sourer when he considers his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, currently leads the circuit in wins with four, and in the points, by 10, over five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

"Obviously, our confidence isn't as good as what the 18 [Busch] is at this point," Hamlin said. "At this point last year, we had a lot of confidence. The cars, in my opinion, were really easy to drive for me and the 18 has taken what we've learned over the last year and they've applied it and are running better than anyone right now.

"We've got to figure out what we can adapt these race cars to me to be a little bit better for this season and it's going to take a lot of hard work to do that."

It isn't like Hamlin, crew chief Mike Ford and their team hasn't been busting it. But now, with three races remaining until the Chase cutoff, Hamlin's under threat both by drivers that are ahead of him in the points who could win, stealing his Chase wild-card spot; as well as drivers behind him in points who have wins that could pass him.

"We have to get this ship up and pointing back in the right direction and it's going to take a lot of hard work to do it," Hamlin said, belaboring the obvious. "A lot of communication and obviously, we have some stuff we have to work on but we'll get through it and we'll try to get in there these last three races."

Hamlin is certain of one thing, and that's if he's able to make it into the elite 12-man field for the Chase, he feels Ford and his bunch can make an impact.

"I won eight races last year, I'm pretty sure that I'm capable," Hamlin said. "Mike Ford is capable and the team itself. You look at every driver's career who were second to Jimmie Johnson -- these kind of years happen.

"It hasn't happened to me in five years -- this is the first time where I've struggled and we're struggling to find the balance of the car that I want. Kyle Busch won eight races [in 2008], failed to make the Chase the next year. It's just part of learning. I'm not going to make any excuses and I'm not going to sugarcoat it because it's on me to try to get better at this one."

Hamlin's not giving up, by any means. But he also knows his season won't end if he's not in the Chase field after the cutoff race -- his hometown event at Richmond International Raceway, where he's won twice in his past four starts and finished second in May.

"That's part of the sport," Hamlin said of a Chase failure. "How many Super Bowl teams don't make the playoff the next year? It's just so hard because any time you're on top -- and in our sport there's 42 guys that are hungry to beat you -- it's so hard in this sport, especially with as close as our cars are, as close as the driver talent is nowadays."

Bowyer not missing the fine points

No one sets out at the beginning of the season, aiming to be on the bubble of being in or out of the Chase with three races to go until the cutoff. But Clint Bowyer's finding out how it feels.

"Hey, we're in one of those spots [so] we've got to do whatever it takes to beat them," Bowyer said. "You're talking about a lot of what-ifs [in the three-race run to the Chase cutoff]. That's the hard thing; there's a ton of what-ifs."

Bowyer has moved to 11th in the standings, 24 points behind Tony Stewart for the last point-qualified position in the Chase. If Bowyer could win this weekend at Bristol, he'd take the second wild-card spot reserved for race winners between positions 11 and 20 in the standings.

"You've got to be able to react to it," Bowyer said of whatever might happen. "You've got to be able to see past the tip of your nose. You've got to be able to forecast and make a good decision on a gamble of what to do to put yourself in a situation to get the best finish possible.

"That's what these races are coming down to, each and every week. You've just got to do a better job of making a better decision than the next guy, and having just a little bit more luck to see that decision play out."

So far, luck hasn't been Bowyer's strong suit, but he has three more chances before the curtain comes down on the Chase qualifiers and the also-rans.

As a fan, you can't lose either way because Bowyer is one of a select few drivers that can actually win on more weekends than he'll run badly -- thus he could play a mean spoiler in the Chase. But truth be told, it'd be better to have him in there as a championship contender.

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Keselowski brimming with confidence

Brad Keselowski has scored three top-three finishes in a row, all racing on a broken ankle, and he totals four consecutive top-10s. He says his growth is mirrored in the same occurrence at Penske Racing at large.

"Obviously, there's been some growth within the company at Penske Racing," Keselowski said. "I kind of walk a line there with how I say that because we've made a step forward, which is great to do and has created the results we've seen over the last few weeks. But I think we need to make another step forward. That's a big, big goal -- a lofty goal.

"To be a championship contender, we need to make that next step. We've made a step forward, the specifics of which I'd probably rather not go into details of. I think that you can see it with our team, obviously. You can see that Penske Racing has what I feel is two equally competitive teams [with teammate Kurt Busch]."

Busch has equally praised his young teammate when analyzing Penske's fairly strong championship possibilities.

Starr triples among double-duty swarm

There's no question Kyle Busch is the master of the NASCAR triple-play -- at Bristol Motor Speedway, this weekend's venue, or anywhere else, for that matter.

But Busch has gotten some company in doing the triple in Thunder Valley with the entry of a Nationwide Series Chevrolet by veteran series owner Wayne Day, for Truck Series stalwart David Starr.

Starr, who raced Wednesday night in the mid-week Truck event; will attempt the Sprint Cup race in his fourth attempt for Leavine Family Racing, a new team engineered by Wally Rogers for which Starr has made the races in two of the team's first three attempts -- high-profile events at Texas and Charlotte.

Starr will be fighting not to be one of three cars that go home from the Cup race, while in the Nationwide Series he's one of 19 drivers battling not to be one of the six that doesn't race.

While Starr and Busch are the only triple threats at Bristol, 14 drivers are doing doubles. Jennifer Jo Cobb, Elliott Sadler and Parker Kligerman are running the Truck race and Nationwide; Kevin Harvick is running the Truck event and Cup; and the other 10, including Joey Logano, Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Green, T.J. Bell, Carl Edwards, David Reutimann, David Stremme, J.J. Yeley and Joe Nemechek are running Nationwide and Cup.