The Frontstretch: Side By Side: Will Denny Hamlin Make The Chase? by Kevin Rutherford and Jeff Wolfe -- Wednesday June 5, 2013

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Side By Side: Will Denny Hamlin Make The Chase?

Kevin Rutherford and Jeff Wolfe · Wednesday June 5, 2013


Welcome back to Side By Side. There are always two sides to every story, and we’re going to bring them both, right here, every week. Two of our staff writers will face off on an important racing question … feel free to tell us what you think in the weekly poll and also in the comments section below!

This Week’s Question: After a dismal showing at Dover, will Denny Hamlin make the Chase in 2013?

Kevin Rutherford, Assistant Editor: You Can’t Count Him Out

Don’t count out Denny Hamlin just yet.

Sure, he missed four races due to a collapsed vertebra, something that would effectively ruin the seasons of most drivers, especially pre-Chase. While his competitors continued to accumulate points and rack up wins, Hamlin was on the sidelines, unable to do anything but wait as he went into a freefall in the standings.

But don’t count out Hamlin just yet.

Will Denny Hamlin lead the pack enough to make the Chase…

After Dover, Hamlin sits 26th in points. He needs to be in the Top 20 to have a shot at a wild card for the Chase. If he makes it into that position, he needs wins to attain wild card status. Denny Hamlin has zero wins in 2013. He’s 74 points behind Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton, who are currently tied for 20th.

In order to even make it into the Top 20, Hamlin would need a string of fantastic finishes, with no room for error. Aside from the wins he needs anyway to have a real shot at the two wild card spots, he’d require a healthy string of Top-5 and Top-10 finishes, preferably the former. He’d need to pass Newman, Burton, the surging Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose and Casey Mears to do it. He has only 13 races left to do so; it’s officially the halfway point between the beginning of the season and Richmond, after which the Chase lineup will be decided.

He’s still likely recovering from the injury that ailed him to begin with. One big crash could do just as much damage, if not more.

The odds, it seems, are stacked against him. No one’s ever made the Chase missing a major chunk of the season, partially because of the lack of the wild card berths in previous years.

But don’t count out Hamlin just yet. Denny Hamlin could pull this off.

The driver of Joe Gibbs Racing’s FedEx No. 11 has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Making it into the Top 10 in points is almost impossible, given that he would need wins basically everywhere and for the competition ahead of him to have some major hard luck. That said, for a man whose chance at glory is still within sight, there’s going to be a fight, a passion that may be unmatched by his rivals.

It’s all or nothing for him. We all know that many drivers will race for points each week instead of wins; we’ve seen it. If there’s a risk, a desperate driver will take it. A cautious driver? Much less likely. What’s the worst that can happen to Hamlin? He’s so far back in the points that if he doesn’t move forward, it’s simply not going to matter. Might as well go for broke. And go for broke he will.

Hamlin has shown he can run well; despite a poor 34th-place finish at Dover, he’s won the pole at the last two races and has finishes of second and fourth in his other races back, not counting Talladega, for which Hamlin was credited with 34th despite being relieved by Brian Vickers a few laps in (by the way, 34th is still better than not running the race at all). Though his momentum may have been killed or at least curtailed at Dover, you have to think that’s not necessarily going to be a complete deal breaker. He came back from a major injury to finish second and fourth, so a 34th-place finish isn’t necessarily going to be a major deterrent.

He’s shown he can win at some of the remaining tracks on the schedule, and he’s shown he can be in contention despite his recent injury. He’s still one of the top forces at a formidable Joe Gibbs Racing, and has had good cars every week he’s been back.

Yeah, he hasn’t won this year. But he’s going to. It’s probably going to happen at Pocono this weekend, a track at which he has four wins and he’ll visit later in the season as well. Right now, two wins would propel him to the front of the wild card class, granted he can enter the Top 20.

Seventy-four points is not insurmountable. His closest competitors do not have the equipment he does.

And once again, he’s going for broke. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Don’t count out Denny Hamlin just yet. Denny Hamlin’s going to pull this off.

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: Not So Fast…He’s Got a Long Way To Go

I don’t have anything against Denny Hamlin. In fact, I wouldn’t mind being wrong on this issue. Hamlin seems like a nice enough guy. He’s a new and proud father, has been cordial in a couple of smaller press conference settings I’ve been at with him, and in general exemplifies what is good about NASCAR and the large majority of its drivers.

…or is he too far behind the rest of the field to have a chance?

But here’s the bad news for diehard Hamlin fans, or even those who kind of like him and don’t mind seeing him do well: he’s not going to make NASCAR’s playoffs this year. Hamlin missed four races earlier this season due to a back injury after an accident with Joey Logano at California in March. The result, along with likely being in some pain for a couple of weeks, was that Hamlin was buried in the driver’s points. He went from being a serious Chase contender to basically needing a miracle to make it back in this year, even as a wild card.

At 26th in points, there is just too much to overcome. For Hamlin to make the Chase, he has to be in the top 20 in points, and most likely will have to win at least two of the next 13 races remaining in NASCAR’s regular season. What’s a bit weird here is that Hamlin may actually get the wins, but he’s going to have a tough time reaching the 20th spot in the points.

The Sprint Cup standings going into this Sunday’s race at Pocono have him 74 points behind 20th place Ryan Newman and 21st place Jeff Burton. The other drivers between Hamlin and the 20th spot are Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin and Casey Mears. Hamlin will likely pass Mears and Martin in the standings, as he is just 10 and 12 points behind them. Martin is running only a partial schedule and Mears has yet to record a top-10 finish this season.

However, Hamlin is 45 points behind Ambrose and 58 behind Montoya. It’s going to take some good finishes on Hamlin’s part (and we’re talking a string of top-five finishes, not just top 10s), just to catch those guys. But it’s also important to remember that with the two road course races remaining, Ambrose and Montoya will be two of the favorites there. That may be a place where Hamlin could make up ground on many drivers, but you can’t count on gaining on Ambrose and Montoya there.

If somehow, though, Hamlin can catch them in the points, he still has to catch and pass both Newman and Burton. Newman has six top-10 finishes this year but has been bitten by inconsistency. He’s in a contract year so he wants to show sponsors and owners he can still be legitimate contender each week. Burton has been a bit resurgent with two top 10 finishes but may be more capable of slumping. Hamlin will need something like that to happen to catch both Newman and Burton in his wild-card chase.

The other wild-card factor in Hamlin’s Chase scenario is the Toyota engine that powers his car. Toyota seemed to have its engine woes largely figured out after Daytona, but fellow Toyota drivers Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex, Jr. each had their engines turn into grenades on them this past weekend at Dover. If Hamlin gains some momentum with a win and a couple of top-5 finishes, and starts thinking he’s got a real chance to make the Chase, no one could blame him if somewhere in the back of his mind he was worried about his engine blowing up. And Toyota’s engine development department doesn’t have much time to figure out its problems as Pocono, with the longest frontstretch on the circuit at 3,740 feet, is this weekend and has a reputation for being hard on engines.

Everyone loves pulling for the underdogs in this type of situation, including me. But just don’t be disappointed if Hamlin, as hard as he will try, doesn’t reach the Chase this year. He’s going to have to be nearly perfect to make it happen. We’re talking about two wins, seven or eight other top 5s, two or three other top 10 finishes, and no disastrous 30-something finishes like he had at Dover Sunday.

It will be a great story if Hamlin does do the near impossible and make the Chase, but it’s just too much to ask of him, or any other driver for that matter.

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