The Joe Gibbs Racing driver finished 23rd Sunday at Sonoma Raceway, the latest in a series of disappointing results for the Virginia native in recent weeks. It leaves him 25th in the championship standings -- a whopping 83 points from the Top-20 – and facing the prospect of failing to make the Chase for the first time in his career. That’s almost two full races out of the hunt, discounting the fact that he remains winless in 2013, as well.
Make no mistake about it, Hamlin is a championship longshot, arguably for the first time in his NASCAR career. After sitting out four races with a compression fracture in his spine, Hamlin’s back was literally against the wall in May. Unfortunately, a team that had no remaining margin for error has made a number of them. There have been mechanical failures, strategic miscues, ill-handling race cars and crashes; all of which have dug Hamlin’s 2013 grave a little bit deeper.
Off the injured list and heading to Darlington in early May, Hamlin was 76 points out of the Top-20. Today, with six more races in the rearview mirror, he’s 83 out.
Denny, you’re going the wrong way!
“I love the challenge,” said Hamlin at the time of his return. “The less realistic it is, the bigger the challenge it is for me. It's going to be all on my shoulders to make the run toward the Chase. We have a huge, huge hole to dig out of, but there's nothing wins can't fix."
Unfortunately for Hamlin, the wins have not come. An encouraging, runner-up finish in his fulltime return at Darlington was followed by a fourth in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Hamlin was unable to build on that momentum, however, struggling to a 34th-place finish at Dover and a 30th at Michigan, prior to Sunday’s latest letdown.
To his credit, Hamlin refuses to pin any of the blame on his chronically ailing back. "I feel fine,” he insisted. “There's nothing that I feel in the car that keeps me from performing better. We missed the setup a couple of weeks and had bad stuff happen. It's just frustrating that we can't get a finish."
Now, even Hamlin admits that his Chase hopes are dim. "I'd have to have a lot of stuff go my way," he said. "We're not gaining anything on 20th. We need a lot of help, honestly."
While many of the tracks that lie ahead have been good to Hamlin in the past, he said past performance is not necessarily a predictor of future success.
"We're not running that strong,” he said. “We're not running as strong as the Chase guys right now (and) you can't expect other guys to make mistakes." Even his JGR teammates, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, are outperforming him at present, a fact that is not lost on Hamlin.
"They're performing better than us, that's for sure," he said. "For the first three weeks we were back, we were the best car, (but) we've been at the tail end of the trio for the past couple of weeks. We should be able to run with them.”
He’ll have to outrun a lot of people in the next few weeks to have any hope at all.