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Denny Hamlin falls short on victory promise

March 31, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

Despite front-row starting spot, Joe Gibbs Racing driver struggles at Martinsville

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Denny Hamlin's bold prediction of a Martinsville Speedway victory fell flat Sunday afternoon, leaving the Joe Gibbs Racing driver scratching his head after an uncharacteristically subpar performance at one of his best tracks.
 
Hamlin set the fastest time in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice Friday and backed it up with a second-best speed in Coors Light Pole Qualifying, prompting the Virginia native to promise a victory in Sunday's main event. But after a washout of on-track activity Saturday, Hamlin faded from his front-row starting spot in the STP 500 and dropped to a 19th-place finish in an ill-handling car.

Hamlin, who missed the series' previous race after a piece of metal lodged in his eye last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, said he had no vision problems at Martinsville.
 
"Just slow. That's the only thing that was wrong with us today," said Hamlin, a four-time winner at the .526-mile track. "Frustrating day, especially when you know that this is a race track that I feel like I can make up a difference here and there, but man, we were a football field and then some away from the right set-up today."
 
Hamlin sent a radio message to crew chief Darian Grubb before one of his earliest pit stops, saying he wanted to "take a big swing" at improving the set-up. But whatever changes his No. 11 Toyota crew made throughout the course of the day never quite addressed the handling issues.
 
Compounding the lack of grip was an ignition issue that caused the car to lose power in Martinsville's tight turns.
 
"Still, setup-wise, we could've really used Saturday," Hamlin said of the rainy preliminary day. "I was thinking as fast as we were on Friday, it probably would play into our advantage not having practice on Saturday, but there was a laundry list of things we needed to try and didn't get to do it. Obviously, this car and the set-up we had was good for 10 laps, but it just goes away after that. We've got to go to work, do some testing. It's the only thing you can do to get better."
 
Guarantees aside, Hamlin and his team will try to regroup next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, where he has two Sprint Cup victories -- a sweep of the 1.5-mile track's races in 2010. Though his team's recent showing on intermediate tracks has him hopeful for a rebound in Fort Worth, it's the mild short-track shortcomings that had him down on Sunday.
 
"Really, our short-track program since the beginning of '13 has really gone away -- a lot," said Hamlin, who finished seventh at Texas last fall. "We definitely need to test and get it a little better than what it is, and a lot better to get to Victory Lane. We've definitely got a long way to go, but it's a long season, we've got all of our tests saved up, so we'll hit it here in the summer months."

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