Pocono: Hamlin's best opportunity to make a run at a Wild Card spotWeekend Preview: Two drivers worth taking considering this weekend for the Pocono race are one obvious choice, Jeff Gordon, and one dark-horse candidate, Clint Bowyer.
By: Staff Report, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
For the first time in Denny Hamlin's career, is he in real danger of missing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?
After a flat tire in Sunday's FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway caused an accident that left him with a 34th-place finish, Hamlin is hoping to rebound this Sunday in the Party in the Poconos 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT) at Pocono Raceway, a track at which he's won four times.
Hamlin's success at the triangular 2.5-mile tracks presents the best opportunity for the Virginia native to get back into the top 20. With 13 races left before the Chase field is set, the premier series visits Pocono twice – one of only two tracks the series visit twice between now and the first Chase race at Chicagoland. Michigan International Speedway also hosts two of the next 13 races.
After missing four races earlier this season due to a back injury, Hamlin's most realistic chance to make the Chase is by finishing in the top 20 in points following the 26th race of the season at Richmond International Raceway -- the final race of the regular season -- and winning a race or two in order to lock up one of two wild card spots.
The hole he needs to pull himself from before the Chase begins is slightly deeper than it was just a week ago. Following his disappointing finish at Dover, he dropped from 24th to 26th in the standings, 224 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.
However, in 14 starts at Pocono, Hamlin has performed admirably. In his first two visits to the track as a rookie in 2006, he captured the pole for both races and subsequently won both for the season sweep. He led 83 of 200 laps in the first race and 151 in the second. He was the sixth and last driver to sweep both Pocono races, joining Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Tim Richmond, Bobby Labonte and Johnson.
Hamlin also won the August 2009 and June 2010 races. His four wins at Pocono ties him with three legendary drivers -- Richmond, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip -- for third on the all-time wins list, behind Jeff Gordon (six) and Elliott (five). He has nine top-10 finishes and leads all drivers over the past eight years in average driver rating (115.1), laps led (663) and fastest laps (430). His average starting position of 5.6 at Pocono is also tops among all drivers over the past eight years.
As much as Hamlin has excelled at the track, he knows that the track is still challenging to navigate with three distinctly different turns and straightaways.
"Since the track was repaved, it has changed a little bit, but you really have to get your car working in all three corners to make speed at Pocono," Hamlin said. "The front straightaway is long, so your car really has to be setup well for Turn 3."
In nine races this season, he has had three top-five finishes. Surprisingly, two of those performances came in his first two full races back from injury -- a runner-up finish at Darlington followed by fourth at Charlotte. The flat tire last Sunday at Dover temporarily derailed his efforts to get back into the top 20. But, if there's anyone that can get their season back on track at Pocono, it's Hamlin.
Plus, it should be a great show watching how the new Generation 6 race cars perform on the Tricky Triangle.
"It's going to be really fast in these new cars, and I'm looking forward to going out there Sunday to put on a good show for the fans," Hamlin said.
And there's a good chance Hamlin will be up near the front of the pack – racing to get back into the Chase.
FANTASY FOCUS: Two drivers worth taking considering this weekend for the Pocono race are one obvious choice, Jeff Gordon, and one dark-horse candidate, Clint Bowyer. Off the bat, Gordon is the all-time wins leader at Pocono with six. He won the rain-shortened August race last year to break a tie with Bill Elliott. He's started on the pole twice and has an average driver rating of 100.9. In 40 races, he has 18 top fives, 28 top 10s and has finished on the lead lap 33 times with only five DNFs. Over the past eight years he is near the top in the number of green passes, quality passes and laps run in the top 15. While Bowyer has never won at Pocono, he performed admirably there, especially since 2007. In the past 12 races, he has one top five and seven top 10s. He's finished in the top 20 in 11 of the 12 races; the only blemish in the June 2008 race where he finished 39th. In the two races last year, he finished sixth and eighth. He's also among the leaders in pass differential and the number of green passes.
DILLON LOOKING FORWARD TO IOWA
Austin Dillon holds a special place in his heart for Iowa Speedway -- it was at that track on July 11, 2010, where he won his first NASCAR national touring series race in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
This Saturday he arrives in Iowa for the DuPont Pioneer 250 (7 p.m., ESPN) three years wiser, three years more experienced and running full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. By the end of the race, he hopes to have improved upon his best finish of fourth, which he posted in last season's edition of the race.
Dillon has traditionally qualified well in Iowa with an average starting position of 7.0 in four series starts. He's started in the third position twice. He and his team, however, aren't as pleased with their finishes -- 28th, 10th, fourth and 15th.
"Iowa Speedway is a place where we have given away a few races," Dillon said. "Going there this year, I've always been pretty strong there and hopefully we can capitalize this year."
Among the series regulars earning championship points, he's near the top in driver rating (94.2), green passes (117) and fastest laps (73).
After 11 races, he is currently ranked fifth in the standings, 53 points behind leader Regan Smith. Dillon has two top-five and six top-10 finishes; his best finish is a third at Texas. He started the last two races (Charlotte and Dover) from the pole and went on to post 14th- and eighth-place finishes, respectively.
GAUGHAN UNDER THE RADAR
If there's one driver that has been running under the radar this year, it's Brendan Gaughan. The Nevada native who turns 38 next month has stealthily kept his name near the top of the standings and his car up front all year amidst the youth movement in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
On Friday, Gaughan will be looking for his fifth straight top-five performance this season in the WinStar World Casino 400 (8 p.m., SPEED) at Texas Motor Speedway. Over the past four races his average finishing position is an amazing 3.5 with finishes of third, fourth, second and fifth.
The one thing missing so far from his resumé this year is that elusive first win. Perhaps, his luck will improve in Texas. In his first trip to the 1.5-mile superspeedway he finished runner-up to Jack Sprague. Gaughan then rattled off a streak of four consecutive victories at Texas, sweeping both events in 2002 and 2003. Unfortunately, he hasn't been to Victory Lane since.
"I got my first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Texas, and then continued to have a lot of success during the 2002 and 2003 seasons," said Gaughan, who is currently third in the standings, 35 points behind leader Matt Crafton.
"The last few seasons we haven't done as well as I would have liked at Texas, so the team decided to use one of our test sessions at this track and learned some valuable information."
In his last 12 truck races at the track, Gaughan has only two top-five finishes, with an average finishing position of 18.8.
If he's able to continue his streak of consecutive top fives in 2013 on Friday and avoid a poor finish similar to those that have haunted him recently at Texas, he stands a great chance of being in the best position since 2003 to make a serious run at the title. Gaughan was the points leader after the eight races leading up to the season finale but finished fourth after being involved in a mid-race accident.