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Preview: Pocono coming at an ideal time for Hamlin

August 05, 2011, Sporting News Wire Service,

Hamlin best average start, average finish of active drivers at 2.5-mile triangle

A couple days before last weekend's Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chase-bubble driver Denny Hamlin said he and his team had seven more weeks to hone themselves into a playoff-caliber team.

That number is now down to six and, thanks to a disappointing Brickyard 400 finish, Hamlin and his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team are now more Chase-bubble than they were a week ago.

"I think we're going to peak at the right time. And, we did that last year really well and I think we're trending towards that this year."


There is good news, however, and that is that this weekend, the Cup Series rolls into what has been an iron-clad Hamlin stronghold -- Pocono Raceway, for the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

"It's just one of those race tracks I've got a really, really good feel for honestly," Hamlin, a four-time winner at the 2.5-mile Pocono triangle, said. "There are not too many tracks where you feel like when you pull in you just can't do no wrong, but that's kind of one of the places."

Thank goodness.

Hamlin is 11th in points. He is 19 points out of 10th in a year in which just the top 10 drivers will get Chase berths based upon points. Hamlin has one victory -- Michigan in June -- but three other drivers (Paul Menard, David Ragan and Brad Keselowski) have realistic wild-card hopes by having victories of their own, so a wild-card berth for the Chase is anything but assured.

Tough to believe for a driver and team who came within one race -- he led the points standings heading into the season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- of dethroning Jimmie Johnson and winning last year's championship.

"Last year at this point we were winning races one out of three or four races or so and you really can't get any better, but we weren't able to maintain it in the Chase," Hamlin said.

But this season, a season in which some had predicted that Hamlin would take another swing at five-time champ Johnson, has been a bummer.

The driver who led the series with eight victories and had 14 top-five finishes has been devoid of the impressive consistency he showed in 2010. Through 20 races this year, Hamlin has just four top-fives. He has been a victim of mechanical problems and just plain average finishes.

Great time, he said, to be racing at Pocono, where he has the best average starting position (5.9) and best finishing position (9.2) among all active drivers.

"Honestly," Hamlin said, "we feel like we should've won twice as many races there as what we have even though we've won a lot. It's just every time we go there we're in position to win the race just about every time. Fuel or things like that doesn't always help you complete the job, but we've had the fastest car there probably 80 percent of the time."

Hamlin finished 19th at Pocono earlier this season, but led four times for a race-best 76 laps. Clearly, the new rule which allows for shifting of gears at Pocono had little effect on Hamlin.

"I don't think it changed that much for me," Hamlin said of the gearing change. "There were times during the race that I was shifting and times when I wasn't, just depending on what kind of mode I was in."

And after Pocono, and before the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway in mid-September, there are a couple of other races at places where Hamlin also thrives. Like Michigan in two weeks, where Hamlin has two victories.

Who's Hot / Who's Not

• Jeff Gordon has finished 11th or better in his past five Cup starts.
• Matt Kenseth has finished 14th or better in nine of his past 10 Cup starts.
• Kevin Harvick has top-five finishes in his past three Pocono starts.
• Kurt Busch has top-10 finishes in five of his past six Pocono starts.
• Juan Montoya has scored top-10 finishes in four of his past five Pocono races.
• Jamie McMurray has just one top-10 in his past 10 Cup starts.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't finished in the top 10 in his past six Cup starts.
• Greg Biffle has just one top-10 in his past 10 Pocono races.
• Carl Edwards has just one top-10 in his past four Pocono starts.
• Regan Smith is still looking for his first top-10 at Pocono.

"I think we're going to peak at the right time," Hamlin said. "And, we did that last year really well and I think we're trending towards that this year."