LONG POND, Pa.–When Denny Hamlin cut a right front tire late in last Sunday’s FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway, the mishap sent his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota hard into the outside wall in Turn 1.
The impact was jarring, especially for a driver who had missed four races after suffering a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra during a last-lap crash at Fontana, Calif., in late March.
As it turned out, however, physical well-being was the least of Hamlin’s concerns. Relegated to a 34th-place finish in a race where Hamlin had started from the pole and run consistently in the top 10, Hamlin sustained much more serious damage to his improbable quest to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“I feel pretty good,” Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service on Friday at Pocono Raceway. “Actually, afterwards, I felt the best after that Dover race–of course I was 20 laps short at the finish, but better than I really felt there after any Dover race.
“I think physically everything was good. It didn’t affect me at all. Obviously, it kind of caught me off guard when (the tire) did blow and hit the wall, so I really didn’t have time to get tight or anything. Everything was pretty good.”
Not so good was Hamlin’s standing in the points. He slipped two spots to 26th and is 74 points out of 20th, the position Hamlin must reach after 26 races to be eligible for a wild card position in the Chase. In other words, there’s almost no margin for error in the next 13 races.
“I have (to run) an average now of two spots better in each race on performance just because I had one bad finish,” Hamlin said. “That’s a crusher as far as that’s concerned. That part of it is tough. Obviously, if we do win a couple times, more than likely… we were edging our way and we were going to be in good shape had we not blown that tire, we would have been down in the 40s (points down) to 20th with plenty of time.
“Now we set ourselves back to where we pretty much started again. We’ve done the math, we know what we have to do, but obviously we know that every bad finish hurts us that much more.”