SONOMA, Calif. — Denny Hamlin closed in on a slower car at Sonoma Raceway, changed lanes to make the pass and was instead slammed into from behind — contact that sent him spinning off the course.
“Who am I wrecking?” Hamlin asked on his radio to identify which driver had retaliation coming to him.
Told the culprit was good friend Tony Stewart, Hamlin quietly went about his day. It ended with a frustrating 23rd-place finish Sunday and another setback in what he had hoped would be a furious charge into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. With 10 races remaining to set the field, Hamlin is 25th in the standings and winless.
He’s in a frantic race to crack the top 20 — he’s currently 83 points out — and lock up some race wins that would make him eligible to claim a wild-card berth into the Chase. It was the goal he set for himself when he was sidelined four races with a compression fracture in his back; when he returned to full-time competition, Hamlin seemed to be a man on a mission.
Hamlin has never missed the Chase in his Cup career, and he had no intention of allowing his injury to be an excuse to come up short this year.
His return race at Darlington was an impressive runner-up finish to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, and he followed it by finishing fourth at Charlotte.
Then the air began to leak out of his comeback tour with a 34th-place finish at Dover, a 30th at Michigan and then Sunday’s frustrating day.
Those Chase chances now?
“I’d have to have a lot of stuff go my way, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’re not gaining anything to 20th. We need a lot of help and a lot of stuff to go our way, honestly.”
Hamlin then talked about his “wheelhouse” portion of the schedule coming up — the fast, slick tracks where he typically excels and could make some noise again in his title bid.
Only problem? “We’re not running that strong, we’re not running as strong as the Chase guys right now,” he said. “You have to earn it. You can’t just expect other guys to make mistakes.”
And that’s the problem right now with the No. 11 car, Hamlin said, and not the fractured vertebra that kept him out of the car and put him in this hole.
It’s an important distinction because, when Hamlin was healing, he said if he couldn’t save the season he’d consider pulling the plug and focus on getting his back 100 percent healthy. That could involve surgery, or rehabilitation, but it was an option he tossed out there.
He was quick Sunday to dismiss his back injury as the performance problem.
“I feel fine. There’s nothing that I feel in the car that keeps me from performing better,” he insisted. “Missed the setup a couple weeks and had bad stuff happen. It’s just frustrating — can’t get a finish.”
Hamlin is also frustrated that his Toyota is not at the same performance level as JGR teammates Kenseth and Kyle Busch. In the six races he’s been back, Kenseth has a win and Busch has four top-six finishes.
While Hamlin was on the same pace as his teammates when he first returned, he said he believes he’s taken a step back in the past few weeks.
“They’re performing better than us, that’s for sure,” he said. “Honestly, that’s the benchmark we need to set ourselves at — our teammates. We should be able to run with them. We’ve been at the tail end of the trio for the past couple of weeks.”
So Hamlin indeed has his work cut out for him at those “wheelhouse” tracks, beginning Saturday night at Kentucky, where he finished third last season.
Then it’s off to Daytona, where anything can happen, but Hamlin is usually in the lead pack of cars and in the mix for the win. Then it’s New Hampshire, where he’s a two-time winner and has 10 top-10 finishes, and Indianapolis, where he started from the pole and finished sixth last year.
He’ll head into this critical stretch of the season with the same game plan he’s had since his return.
“I don’t think my strategy changes at all,” he said. “I think I continue to try to win every week and do all I can, just trying to get a good finish at this point.”
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