Denny Hamlin has one race to make it into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and a chance to run for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.
Hamlin enters Sunday‘s Bluegreen Vacations 500 at ISM Raceway 20 points below the cutline on the Playoff grid. After a 28th-place finish last week at Texas Motor Speedway Hamlin went from being 24 above the line to now needing to make up a lot of ground or his title hopes will end.
While the Joe Gibbs Racing driver doesn‘t necessarily have to win Sunday in order to keep his championship quest going, Hamlin understands the gravity of the situation.
“I‘m feeling pretty good,” Hamlin said during his media availability at the track. “Just going through the process and I feel like we have a pretty good car in the first practice. Still have some work to do to make it a race winning car, but overall, we‘re in the hunt.”
Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart are working on their plan for Sunday taking into consideration the importance of stage points as well as obviously trying to win the race, which would advance them into the Championship 4. But Hamlin says it will be very much a work in progress and he and his team are ready to adapt to the situation as it unfolds.
“Yeah, I think we‘re going to try to qualify as good as we can and try to stay up front,” Hamlin said. “If you stay up front and are leading the race, leading laps, finish good in the first stage, the pressure will shift to other people to have to protect points.
“You do everything you can to be up front the first stage, and then you kind of analyze where you are from there. Are you a winning car, are you going to stay there, or are you going to have to switch your strategy for the second stage to set yourself up to be up front to win the race?”
Hamlin started the year winning the Daytona 500 and has added four more victories to his total. He came into the playoffs as one of the championship favorites and many believed this was his best shot since 2010 for him to finally win the title.
However, even if he comes up short of that expectation, Hamlin is still proud of the season he‘s put together and the successes that have come on track.
“You adjust your expectations,” he explained. “No matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure. We, as Mark Martin would say, we just didn‘t score enough points. We had a great year, we won races, we led more laps than we have in a long time and more top fives than anybody in the series.
“It‘s been a really good year and I‘m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it‘s a good season or not. I think you have to adjust that. One race, winner take all, or a three-race round — anything can happen, and it did for us.”