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Hamlin hones in on Chase momentum at Richmond

September 04, 2014, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com

After two topsy-turvy years, JGR driver upbeat for 'whole new season' in playoffs

RELATED: Full coverage of "One Night in Richmond" series

An assessment of Denny Hamlin's bouts with adversity the last two seasons once prompted a sympathetic text from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth: "You must be the unluckiest driver I've ever seen." The candor was well-intended, but after a year and a half of hurdles, Hamlin believes his luck is about to change.

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Fresh from a third-place finish last weekend at Atlanta, Hamlin heads to his hometown track at Richmond International Raceway with a chance to build momentum for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. Hamlin considers the .75-mile short track -- site of Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the regular-season finale -- a personal stronghold but his high hopes for finishing the year on an up note extend well into the 10-race postseason.

"The schedule couldn't lend itself better to us because all of our best race tracks are either right before the Chase or they're right at the beginning or end of the Chase," Hamlin said two days before his podium finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "This track here, it's in our wheelhouse and any track where there's tire wear, we're typically really good. Richmond speaks for itself how we've run there. These are just kind of momentum-setters over these next couple of weeks."

The saving grace of Hamlin's luckless season in 2013 for Hamlin came well into the fall. The soaring highs of five Coors Light Pole Awards were balanced against the rash of eight DNFs and worse, the four-race absence in the spring because of a back injury that sealed the first Chase no-show of his Sprint Cup career. But for one night in late November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a victory in the regular-season finale offered a silver lining to the tumultuous ride. 

After the 2014 regular-season campaign hit two significant road blocks, Hamlin and his JGR team could be excused for thinking, "here we go again." An odd eye injury in March at Auto Club Speedway, site of his compression fracture after a hard crash the year before, caused him to miss the fifth race of the season. Then in late July, a 75-point penalty and six-race suspension for crew chief Darian Grubb knocked the 33-year-old driver further down the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.

The difference between this year and the last: Under the new rules for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs, Hamlin has a chance to rally from the setbacks, thanks to a medical exemption for his one-race absence and his berth-clinching win in May at Talladega Superspeedway.

"I'm eager because we kind of got put in a hole for those different circumstances and it seems like I can never quite catch a break over these last two years," Hamlin said. "... The circumstances in which we've had getting hurt before and then again this year at Auto Club, it gives us a chance to just start right over. Really, a whole new season starts once we get to Chicago. 

"I feel like we've gone the route of winning all the regular-season races and then not winning the Chase and I feel like we're heading that other direction this year, where we're not all that impressive during the regular season. I get it, the Penskes and Hendricks and all have been so strong over the regular season, but we're trending in the right direction with our race team. And so, we want to be performing when it really, really counts in September; we've been working in that direction and hopefully it all pays off. It gives us new life, trust me. All of my best race tracks are in the Chase and so, it's not much more we could ask for."

Hamlin will also benefit from fortuitous timing with Grubb's return from suspension, just in time for the postseason opener Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway. Michael Wheeler -- a longtime JGR engineer and Grubb's substitute the last five weeks -- has filled in admirably in the wake of the post-race technical infractions at Indianapolis, illustrating the organization's depth as it prepares to grow to four full-time teams in 2015. 

Grubb notably rose to fame during another notable suspension, serving as interim crew chief for Jimmie Johnson's first Daytona 500 triumph in 2006 as Chad Knaus sat out a penalty phase. Accordingly, he's has had a hands-off approach with the No. 11 Toyota out of necessity in recent race weekends, but Wheeler said he expects his shot-calling experience to benefit Hamlin and Co. going forward.

"I'd say right now, he's enjoying a consulting role," Wheeler said as the post-race smoke settled in Atlanta. "He's letting us lead and do a lot more work -- both myself and everyone who's on the team -- because he went through the same experience back in his days with Hendrick. I think he knows how much that helped him grow, so he's letting us do the same thing. Saying that, we'll have him back for Chicago and we'll be able to have more knowledge on the pit box, more experience at the race track, living it day to day." 

Hamlin possesses two wins among his powerful portfolio at Richmond, just north of his hometown of Chesterfield, Va. But his career record also bodes well for the new-look Chase, in which victories automatically advance a driver through each of the three elimination rounds. 

Hamlin has won at seven of the 10 Chase tracks, including the final five -- stats that give him more than a puncher's chance of reaching the championship round at Homestead. His win in the South Florida finale last year kept an important streak alive, giving him at least one victory in each of his full-time seasons in NASCAR's highest division. If Hamlin is among the four title-eligible drivers, a repeat would be all the more meaningful. 

"If we find ourselves in a position where we make these cuts and find ourselves in Homestead with a shot, we're the defending race winner," Hamlin said, "so I feel pretty confident that you're able to give the competition kind of a scare there, knowing that hey, you've flown under the radar for the most part of the season and now you find yourself with a championship shot."

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