Denny Hamlin: New pavement has changed the game at Pocono

DOVER, DE - JUNE 01:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight/Autism Speaks Toyota, clibms into his car in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 1, 2013 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

DOVER, DE – JUNE 01: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight/Autism Speaks Toyota, clibms into his car in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 1, 2013 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

DOVER, Del. — Denny Hamlin’s quest to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup — despite missing four races because of a compression fracture to his first lumbar vertebra — is one of the most compelling stories of the 2013 racing season.

But is it a realistic goal? To qualify for one of the wild card spots, Hamlin must be in the top 20 in the driver standings after 26 races. He also must win at least one race, probably two.

The top 20 shouldn’t be an issue, given the speed and strength Joe Gibbs Racing has shown this season. Since Talladega in early May, where he started the race and turned the car over to relief driver Brian Vickers at the first opportunity, Hamlin has climbed to 24th in points.

Hamlin has 14 races to gain four more spots, and he’s starting on the pole in Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover.

The wins are another matter. One might think two events at Pocono, where Hamlin swept a pair of races from the pole as a rookie in 2006, would provide an excellent opportunity.

But Hamlin says the recent repaving of the 2.5-mile triangular track, where the Cup series races next week and Aug. 4, has taken away the edge he had there.

“We had a leg up… we had two legs up on everyone when we went there with the old pavement,” Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service. “I think now we’re better than average, but we’re not the best anymore at that track. But it’s definitely a place that we have performed well. Even after it got paved we still performed pretty well. Yeah, it is a track I look forward to…

“Really, for me, I think that when they changed the track and they paved it, it changed everything. It really was like a whole new race track. Same with Kansas and Michigan — all of these tracks, as soon as they pave them, they took one track and they just really threw it out and you’ve got a whole other surface, new setups, new way of driving style every single time. I think that’s the challenge for us. We’ve got to really learn that race track again.”

Because passing is more difficult on the new Pocono surface, track position will be crucial. That may be good news for Hamlin, who will be trying for his third straight Sprint Cup pole next weekend at the Tricky Triangle.

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