News & Media

Hamlin's consistency issues take early Chase toll

September 23, 2011, David Caraviello,

LOUDON, N.H. -- For Denny Hamlin, it's come down to managing expectations.

The Sprint Cup driver has no other choice after Monday's disastrous rain-delayed Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway. It was a catastrophic afternoon for last year's championship runner-up, who had to pit unexpectedly because of a loose wheel, later suffered a cut tire because of contact on a restart, and wound up with a 31st-place finish that buried him 41 points -- nearly a full race -- behind leader Kevin Harvick as the title race moves to the Granite State oval for Sunday's second round.

"Someone asked me, where do you lack? I don't know. It's something different every two to three weeks. It's painful at this moment."


"It was just a nightmare-type race for us," Hamlin said Friday. "We've got to get over that and run well here. This is one of our better race tracks, and I think we run as well as anyone when we come here."

For Hamlin, New Hampshire isn't a bad place to attempt a rebound -- although he has only one race win in Loudon, his average finish of 7.1 is better than that of any other driver in the field, and he's finished worse than third here only once in his past four starts. Even so, it may take more than the Magic Mile to get Hamlin back in this championship race, given how uneven this season has been for a driver who's encountered more than his share of on-track issues, and squeezed into the final Chase wild-card spot by virtue of his win earlier this year at Michigan.

Chicago ended a run of three consecutive top-10 finishes for Hamlin, his longest such streak of the year. But contending in the Chase is all about piling up top-five finishes, and Hamlin has only four of those this season -- as opposed to 14 last year.

"For us, we have not put consecutive weeks together in a long while," he said. "It's not because of our performance on the race track -- I think that's not as good as last year, but it's not terrible. I think the field has gotten better this year. Without a doubt, everyone else is closer, so it makes it look a little worse. But mistakes are magnified nowadays ... you're losing 15, 20 spots, because that's how close the field has become now. You look at anybody who's placed up front or in the top five on restarts, they stay up there. So we have an issue, that magnifies it terribly and makes it look really, really bad. We're struggling right now just to get consistency. I can't pinpoint one particular place where we need to work. Someone asked me, where do you lack? I don't know. It's something different every two to three weeks. It's painful at this moment."

It certainly was at Chicagoland, where Hamlin's issues were overshadowed by a fuel-mileage scramble in the final laps that shuffled the Chase field like a deck of cards. As a result, a number of high seeds took unexpected plunges, and come to New Hampshire needing to regain lost ground. One exception was Harvick, who saved enough fuel to finish second behind race winner Tony Stewart, and returned to the top of the points standings for the first time since early July.

"I think anything you can do that is better than everybody else at this point is a good thing," said Harvick, who won at New Hampshire in 2006. "For us, it's kind of like us against ourselves. You don't want to beat yourself in the first week. You don't want to do anything to take yourself out of the hunt, and I think last week you had to take a risk to be a part of the race in the first place."

Those risks didn't pay off for everyone. Among those who ran out of fuel and took points dives were Jeff Gordon, a three-time race winner this year and among the Chase favorites going in, and five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson. But other than Hamlin, no one seems in desperation mode. "Yes, every point counts," said Johnson, 16 back. "And I know that we left points on the table because of fuel mileage at Chicago. But it's just too early to start worrying about that stuff."

Not for Hamlin, it isn't. He's already on a tightrope given how difficult it is to make up ground under this points system, and how most of the other Chase drivers minimized their losses at Chicagoland. Monday's troubles began when a wheel was left loose on an early pit stop, Hamlin picked up a vibration, and lost a lap he was never able to get back. It was a microcosm of the entire season for Hamlin, who has been hamstrung this season by problems beyond his control. He was so frustrated after the event that he left without speaking to the media.

"I don't think anyone has huge expectations for us this Chase," he said. "I personally do, and still do. I think that we really underachieved quite a bit. You get frustrated. But the same team that leaves a loose wheel one week will help you pick up the position you need the following week, and help me win a race down the road. It will all even out in the long run. It's a team effort more than ever this year. ... You know things are sometimes out of your control, but you man up and deal with it."

And that means trying to make up ground, beginning at New Hampshire. In that regard, Hamlin isn't alone. Big comebacks are possible in the Chase -- Johnson won his first title after rallying from a 156-point deficit with six races remaining in 2006, and won his most recent after finishing 25th in the Chase opener last season.

"It's a long Chase -- there's still nine more races to go," said Kyle Busch, who opened as the top seed and is now 19 points back in ninth. "We won't know until the end. There's been periods of time this year where we'd come into the race as the points leader, have a bad week and fall back to fifth in points, 20-something points behind the leader. In three or four races, we'd make it back up. Certainly there's the opportunity for us to make it back up. That's what we're trying to do, and that's what we want to do, starting here at Loudon and then going to Dover -- a good place for us, and certainly some others. We know it's definitely going to be a tough Chase, and poor finishes definitely make it a lot tougher."