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Dreaded Dover could derail Hamlin's surge

September 27, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



Dreaded Dover could derail Hamlin's surge

Denny Hamlin once won a Nationwide Series race at Dover International Speedway. He has no idea how.

"Everyone else must have wrecked or something," he said.


Monster-mashed


Denny Hamlin led two laps at Dover in June, just the second time he has led there in 13 races that also includes four crashes (two DNFs).

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2007438*
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20093622
201049
20111618
201218?

"People have their Achilles' heel, and for me, in the course of my career, Dover has been it."

--DENNY HAMLIN


Actually he dominated the event, leading 138 laps. But that 2007 triumph stands in stark contrast to Hamlin's Cup Series record at Dover, which statistically is his worst among the 10 tracks in the Chase. Last Sunday, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver overwhelmed the field at New Hampshire to score his third victory in five weeks and pull within seven points of Jimmie Johnson's series lead. This Sunday, he'll try to stay on the lead lap and hold on to whatever he can.

The third round of this Chase brings a pivotal moment for Hamlin, given how open he's been about dreading a race on a concrete mile where his average finish is 20.5. Johnson, who has won at Dover seven times, surely sees this weekend as an opportunity to make a statement every bit as loud as the one Hamlin made last weekend in the Granite State. For the driver of the No. 11 car, it will be about trying not to lose the momentum he gained seven days earlier, and minimizing the gains of his championship rival.

"All I can do is just have a positive outlook," Hamlin said. "You know, how we've run [at Dover], we've been more cold than hot. But I have had some races where I was pretty competitive. So I mean, just all it takes is us to hit on one thing that identifies, OK, that's what makes me comfortable around this track, and if we can find that, we are going to treat it just like any other weekend that we have a great shot to win. It's just finding that thing. We typically practice a little bit better, a lot better, than what we race, so it's transferring all that information and talking to my teammates about what I need to do in the race to be better. You know, people have their Achilles' heel, and for me, in the course of my career, Dover has been it."

Clearly, judging by the statistics. In terms of average finish, only Daytona and Sonoma rank lower on Hamlin's list. He's cracked the top five just twice in 13 starts there, the last time more than two years ago. As far as positives, he does have a teammate in Kyle Busch who's won there twice. Crew chief Darian Grubb is bringing a car that led 202 laps three weeks ago at Richmond. Hamlin has been trading text messages with noted sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, who is urging the driver to emphasize what he likes about the place.

"I'm going to be optimistic when I go there," Hamlin said. "You know, Darian and my team have been working on that race track for quite a long time the last few weeks, at least, working on a setup that would make me comfortable on that race track. Obviously we are going to take, I think our Richmond car there. The car is going to be good. I just have to have an open mind when I get out there for the first green-flag run, and have faith that I can do it."

There's something about Dover's concrete surface, Hamlin admits, that just throws him off, and makes it more difficult for him to pick up on the feel of the car through the seat of his pants. He faced a similar situation at another concrete track, Bristol, but over time got better there and won for he first time on the half-mile layout this summer. Hamlin believes he needs a good qualifying run Friday to set the tone for the rest of the weekend, and is hopeful that a new setup the No. 11 team is bringing will take it from there. Even so, given his history at Dover, it's tough to push the doubts completely out of the way.

"I'm just realistic," Hamlin said. "I can pump myself up and beat my chest all I want going into a race track, but when you haven't had success there, that means you don't know what feel you are looking for."

Clearly, Johnson doesn't have that same issue, as evidenced by his sterling record at the Delaware facility. The leader by one point over Brad Keselowski, the five-time champion has a real opportunity this weekend to build some separation between himself and his primary challengers. "I certainly look at good tracks and want to capitalize," Johnson said. For Hamlin, meanwhile, it may be all about maintaining a position that will keep him within striking distance of Johnson for the final seven weeks, and avoiding a worst-case scenario.

He knows what that is, because he's been there before. "We know at worst, we're going to be 18th, two laps down," Hamlin said. "That's where we usually are."

Miles the Monster has been a menacing presence to several Chasers. (Getty Images)

Hamlin not alone

Chase drivers who have had their share of struggles at Dover
• Brad Keselowski has finished 12th or worse in all five of his starts.
• Tony Stewart has finished 21st or worse in the past four races and 15th or worse in 10 of the past 15, including eight of 21st or worse.
• Kasey Kahne's average finish of 21.7 is his worst of all tracks except Sonoma (22nd). But he scored his best result of fourth last fall and was ninth in June.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished fourth in June but that is his only top-10 there in the past nine races.
• Greg Biffle has finished 11th or worse in the past four races.
• Jeff Gordon has finished 11th or worse in the past five races.

* Showtime Inside NASCAR: Hamlin talks about his toughest competition for title