Denny Hamlin has been in the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup every year since he entered the sport on a full-time basis back in 2006. This year, after missing four races and barely running another one until Brian Vickers took over his car, Hamlin’s streak of making NASCAR’s 10-race playoff for the eighth consecutive year is likely over.
Hamlin was obviously injured several months ago at the Auto Club Speedway in a final turn incident with Joey Logano. The wreck injured Hamlin’s back to the point where doctors couldn’t medically clear him to race, therefore causing him to miss several events. When he first returned to the track at Talladega, most people believed he could make the chase. However, after Vickers wrecked once he took over the car after the first caution, Hamlin’s hopes continued to diminish.
When he was finally ready to run the full races, Hamlin came back to his usual self as he had back-t0-back top-five finishes in his first two races back. Most fans, and Hamlin himself, believed that he could make the chase with one of the wildcard positions. Then, after having a car capable of winning at Dover, Hamlin wrecked with 20 laps to go, dropping him back to 26th in points. He rebounded at Pocono, arguably his best track, to finish eighth in a race where he had limited horsepower because of the Toyota Racing Development engine woes.
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) June 16, 2013
After hearing about the death of Jason Leffler this week, Hamlin and his FedEX crew felt as if they had to do something out of the ordinary for the original FedEX driver. Hamlin’s team received permission from NASCAR on the Saturday evening before the race at Michigan to paint the car just like Leffler’s original 2005 scheme was. The scheme and the way Hamlin has been running gave the No. 11 team high hopes for Sunday’s race.
However, due to a few bad timing cautions, the No. 11 car was put a lap down and was never able to gain it back. Hamlin fought a loose car throughout the race and was never able to maintain his 11th place starting position. Evidently, Hamlin finished way back in the 30th position.
The finish is the worst for Hamlin when not involved in an accident this year. It knocked him back to the 26th position in points once again after jumping a spot at Pocono. Now, Hamlin’s chase hopes are just about demolished. He’s 85 points behind Kurt Busch who’s in the 20th position in points. Besides having to make up all of those points within nine races, Hamlin has to win a minimum of two races just to get near chase contention. Making it inside of the top-20 is the first step, but with a deficit such as Hamlin’s, it will be extremely difficult to come back from something so severe.
Though he’s competing at the level he usually does with the exception of Michigan, Hamlin just can’t make the chase now. It will be the first time he hasn’t made NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, but it’s a good learning experience as he now knows not to push his car to the point where he can’t drive it well. Hamlin will likely close out the year with a few victories, but they won’t make a difference in his push to make the chase unless they come soon, very soon.
Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR.