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Hamlin's Chase task a daunting one

Denny Hamlin is still in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, but he faces a substantial deficit heading into tonight's Bank of America 500 -- the only night race of the Chase.

Denny Hamlin is still in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, but he faces a substantial deficit heading into tonight's Bank of America 500 -- the only night race of the Chase.

Currently behind leader Jeff Gordon by 262 points, the sophomore driver hopes that avoiding the smoke and carnage last week at Talladega to finish fourth has broken his run of hard luck. Hamlin had four finishes of 19th or worse in the six races prior to Talladega.

"We've had a really tough last couple months, or even the month leading up to the Chase. Just, you know, string of bad luck," Hamlin said. "Leading up to the Chase, we were second, right there in points. It seems like when Chase time came around, we had tough luck, and that's something I didn't have last year."

In 2006, Hamlin made the Chase as a rookie but stumbled after the first two races. He capped three straight bad finishes with his worst, a 28th-place run, in the Bank of America 500. He then rallied for three top-five finishes and five top 10s to finish third in the season standings.

Facing such a large deficit this season, Hamlin can't afford to have another bad race, and those above him in the standings also must falter. Hamlin's possible saving grace? Gordon has failed to finish the last five races at Lowe's Motor Speedway, site of Gordon's first career Cup victory in 1994.

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"We've got to make something happen or else we are totally out of the Chase picture," Hamlin said. "Us and probably sixth (place) on down, we are going to be more aggressive than what we normally would be, and (the top three), they need to take the conservative approach and get the best finish they can. We need to go out there and get wins."

Gordon has a smaller goal in mind.

"I just want to get to the finish of a race here -- it's been a long time since we've done that," Gordon said. "The cars have performed well; it's just been one thing or another that has kept us from getting the good finish."

The four-time champion Gordon last won at LMS in 1999. And since he finished second to teammate Jimmie Johnson in October 2004, Gordon's best finish has been 24th.

Even if Gordon does have another poor finish, that doesn't guarantee a big points jump for Hamlin and others.

Johnson, currently nine points behind Gordon in second place, was the only driver better than Hamlin in the final half of the 2006 Chase. Johnson erased a 156-point deficit after Talladega to win the championship. He started a run of five straight finishes of no worse than second (winning at Martinsville) and then finished ninth at Homestead to capture his first Nextel Cup.

Johnson has been exceedingly good at Lowe's throughout his seven-year career. He has five wins in the last nine Cup races at LMS. In fact, he has not finished out of the top 10 since a 39th-place run on Oct. 7, 2001, his inaugural Cup start.

Meanwhile, Hamlin has three top 10s in four LMS starts, with the aforementioned 28th last year being his career low. It also was the only race he did not lead, having led 27 laps in his career there.

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Hamlin's time to act is now. We'll see if he can get it done under the lights.

Newman streaks to pole

CONCORD, N.C. -- Ryan Newman ran a blistering lap late in Thursday's qualifying session to claim the pole position for tonight's Bank of America 500 NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Newman toured the 1.5-mile track in 28.512 seconds (189.394 mph) to knock Jimmie Johnson (188.990 mph) off the pole for the fifth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup. Bobby Labonte (188.363 mph) will start third in today's race, followed by points leader Jeff Gordon (188.298 mph) and defending race winner Kasey Kahne (188.088 mph).

Jamie McMurray, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Coca-Cola 600 winner Casey Mears and Greg Biffle claimed the sixth through 10th starting positions.

Of other drivers competing in the Chase, Denny Hamlin will start 11th, Kyle Busch 13th, Carl Edwards 18th, Kevin Harvick 24th, Clint Bowyer 25th, Jeff Burton 27th, Tony Stewart 29th and Martin Truex Jr. 32nd.

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