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Hamlin, Ford agree on this: Chase theirs to lose

September 11, 2011, Dave Rodman, NASCAR.com

RICHMOND, Va. -- Driver says his mind-set is must-win; crew chief says that pressure unnecessary

Denny Hamlin Thursday adroitly dodged a question about how well he'd been sleeping these days. His Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief, Mike Ford, earlier had said his team was in the Chase and didn't need the pressure of needing to win.

But the fact is Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway in the Wonderful Pistachios 400, Hamlin has more than one opportunity to get knocked out of the Chase for the first time in his six-year full-time Cup Series career.

"Winning is everything and we've come here with the mind-set that we need to win."

--DENNY HAMLIN

"We don't need to put the pressure of 'we need to win the race.' We don't have to win the race."

--MIKE FORD

But as Ford says, Hamlin agreed their improved communication should carry the day. Hamlin said he couldn't single out one thing his team needed to improve to make that happen.

"Our pit crew's gotten better," Hamlin said. "There's a lot of different things that we need to address but it's more stuff at the shop. At the race track, I think that we're maximizing what we've got and what we can work with. I think me and Mike's communication continues to get better.

"I think that's the one element that's different this year than it was last year. These last couple weeks we're exceeding what we've ever talked about when it comes to racing on a weekend and hopefully that'll be the missing link for performance, because it did fall off quite a bit.

"It's still not where it was, but you're not going to change that overnight. Hopefully all those things work and translate to on-track performance."

Ford's comfort level comes from the fact he claims Hamlin -- while carrying the skills indicated by the league-leading eight wins he scored last season -- has regressed to a characteristic he displayed as a Cup rookie in 2006.

"Everyone handles [pressure] differently," Ford said on SPEED Channel's Thursday 'Race Hub.' "I think in the last few weeks [Hamlin] has really taken a couple steps back in maturity. He reminds me, these last two weeks, of his rookie season: He's very patient, reserved and at the end of the day he gets a [good] finish."

The thing that's bemused many is that, after winning so many times in 2010 and leading the championship going into the Homestead finale, Hamlin's won only once this year and his average finish is 16.4.

Coming to Richmond Hamlin is 12th in the standings, a nearly insurmountable 42 points out of 10th and only 11 points ahead of A.J. Allmendinger, who conceivably might leapfrog Hamlin if he won Saturday night.

But the biggest consolation is that Richmond, the former Chesterfield, Va., resident Hamlin's home track, is his best on the circuit. In his past six starts here he has an average finish of 5.4, with two consecutive wins in this Chase-cutoff event.

"Winning is everything and we've come here with the mind-set that we need to win," Hamlin said, immediately jumping to a slightly different page than Ford. "We want to do that [because] we felt like the last two years that we've won this race really gave us a lot of good momentum going into the Chase and it seems like we had two good Chases in a row, thanks to that.

"So I'd like to end the regular season on a good note, not limp in [to the Chase] on the last legs."

The drama heightens if Hamlin falters, because if Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose or David Ragan wins Saturday night, they'd be in the Chase and Hamlin would be out by virtue of the aforementioned drivers' then-second victory.

Hamlin's June win at Michigan is a key, as it puts him in a position to take advantage of the Chase wild card program that rewards drivers outside the top 10 in the standings who've won races.

"We were very fortunate to get the one win that we do have this year," Hamlin said. "We're very thankful for that, because thinking about it; I'd hate to have to only win and to win only to be in the Chase, at this point.

"I think [the wild card] is great and has opened a lot of eyes to how exciting making the Chase is and can be and hopefully it doesn't come down to too traumatic a finish at the end. I don't want to be part of that, because I know I'm the guy that's gonna be in or out."

Ford simply challenged anyone else to make it happen.

"I don't feel [the pressure] at all," Ford said. "The storylines are that it's a pressure situation but truthfully, if you have a big sponsor and you're on the outside looking in and you don't have the opportunity to get in, that's pressure.

"Truthfully, those guys have to beat us -- they have to win the race and we're in right now. We've got to defend that and there's no better race track to go to than Richmond."

And Ford went so far as to say his attention to what his competitors do on Saturday night would be less than minimal.

"None -- not at all," Ford said when asked how much attention he'd pay to what Menard, Ragan and Ambrose were doing, particularly. "You run the race. You don't need the pressure of 'win and you're in,' that's completely bogus."

Even if it's true, Ford's committed to his plan.

"They can win the race and if we have a solid day we're still in. So we don't need to put the pressure of 'we need to win the race.' We don't have to win the race."

But Hamlin agreed with the assessment that the Chase spot was his team's to lose.

"That's pretty accurate, I would say," Hamlin said. "I know we've had bad finishes [at Richmond] but I don't know what our worst run here, is. We led 383 or 384 laps before we cut that tire one time, and we went down on seven cylinders and finished 15th. Other than that we've always been strong here and we couldn't ask for a better place to end the regular season and start the playoffs than Richmond, for us.

"That's the good news, for us -- but the reason we're in this position is we haven't sustained a 10-week run through the course of the year. And ultimately, the winner of the championship will be the guy who sustains 10 weeks of running good and minimizing his bad days -- and we haven't done that.

"Hopefully it starts [Saturday night] and I'm gonna be optimistic and say from here on out, we don't plan on finishing any worse than 10th. We'll see how that goes."