Dialing It In · Jay Pennell · Wednesday October 20, 2010
Entering this season the favorite to knock four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson off his pedestal, Denny Hamlin has raced the first five Chase races quite conservatively. Leading only one lap thus far in the postseason – that came this past weekend in Charlotte – Hamlin has played the strategy game in his pursuit of the championship, laying low, scoring points, and making few mistakes. But with Martinsville and Talladega coming up next, now more than ever is Hamlin’s time to go.
Sitting 41 points behind Johnson for the Chase lead, Hamlin has kept to his game plan through the first five races, overcome obstacles, and is within reach of the points championship headed into two of his strongest tracks on the schedule.
“I feel like I am within striking distance,” Hamlin said. “Talladega is such a wild card in the sense that it can go 100 points one way or another, that of course we’d like to go into Talladega and have a cushion. But unless we go out there and lead the most laps and Jimmie has a struggle in Martinsville, that’s probably not going to happen.”
“So we just hope to close the gap once we leave Martinsville, then I’m going to keep him right in front of me for the entire Talladega race,” he added. “If I’m going to get in a wreck, I’m going to make sure he’s in it as well. We’ve got to just make sure that we keep him in our sights.”
While Johnson and Hamlin have combined to win the last eight races at Martinsville, Hamlin has taken the checkered flag in three of the last five – including the last two. The pair battled for the lead in last year’s Chase race at the paper-clip short track, but earlier this year it was all Hamlin. Johnson came home a disappointing ninth – his first non-top 4 finish at the half-miler since 2005.
Throughout the Chase, Hamlin has been forced to dial it back a bit, thanks in part to poor starting spots. In the first five Chase races, the No. 11 team has started in the top 5 only once, at Dover. In the other four events, Hamlin qualified 22nd at Loudon, 12th in Kansas, went to the back with a transmission change at Fontana, and started 23rd last Saturday in Charlotte.
Nearly every weekend, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has had to not only overcome starting poorly, but also on-track setbacks. He spun early in the going in New Hampshire, fought through his worst track at Dover to finish ninth, struggled throughout the day in Kansas and nearly went a lap down, had to overcome starting in the back in Fontana, and last week in Charlotte nearly ran into Ryan Newman’s door when he spun down the track in the opening laps.
With so much adversity facing him on the track, Hamlin has been forced to race conservatively. Do not mistake reducing risk, however, with lying down behind the wheel. The driver’s conservatism comes on the always treacherous double-file restarts where danger looms all around.
“You know, there’s been a few little things that have happened on restarts that have kind of kept us from getting five, 10, 15 points, and I feel like that’s just me trying to be cautious and making sure I don’t give up 100, because that’s going to be tough to make up on the No. 48, especially the way he runs,” Hamlin said. “But the way we are running right now, it keeps him honest. It keeps him from making a mistake. If he makes one mistake, we’re going to make him pay for that because of our consistency that we’ve built.”
Looking ahead to the next two weeks, Hamlin has his sights set on closing the gap to Johnson for the lead, calling Martinsville “an all out win or nothing situation.”
Compare that with Johnson looking past Martinsville and focusing on Talladega. When asked about Martinsville last weekend in Charlotte, Johnson replied with bewilderment, believing Talladega came before Martinsville. While this moment caused a chuckle, Johnson admitted, “Tells you how much I’m thinking about Talladega and how concerned I am about that race on the schedule.”
But as Johnson looks at Talladega with worry, Hamlin is looking at his opponent and continuing his game plan, despite the critics.
“I really have been catching a lot of flack on how conservative or whatever you want to call it that I’ve been in the Chase, but it just works for me,” Hamlin said. “Anyone can run the Chase any way that they want to, but in my mind this works for me, and I’m going to, when I feel like I need to go, I’ll go.”
It seems now is the time for Hamlin to go, and if all goes according to plan, those preseason predictions could become a reality in Homestead.
“I feel like for myself having high expectations, it’s just part of the job,” he said. “Predictions are what media does. That’s what everyone wants to know, what are the predictions for a new year, the champions, this, that, and the other. I don’t think anyone knows until it’s all said and done.”
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