Pocono: Hamlin’s best opportunity to make a run at a Wild Card spot

DOVER, DE - JUNE 02:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight/Autism Speaks Toyota, takes part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 2, 2013 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)

DOVER, DE – JUNE 02: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Freight/Autism Speaks Toyota, takes part in pre-race ceremonies for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 2, 2013 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)

For the first time in Denny Hamlin’s career, is he in real danger of missing the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?

After a flat tire in Sunday’s FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway caused an accident that left him with a 34th-place finish, Hamlin is hoping to rebound this Sunday in the Party in the Poconos 400 (1 p.m. ET, TNT) at Pocono Raceway, a track at which he’s won four times.

Hamlin’s success at the triangular 2.5-mile tracks presents the best opportunity for the Virginia native to get back into the top 20. With 13 races left before the Chase field is set, the premier series visits Pocono twice – one of only two tracks the series visit twice between now and the first Chase race at Chicagoland. Michigan International Speedway also hosts two of the next 13 races.

After missing four races earlier this season due to a back injury, Hamlin’s most realistic chance to make the Chase is by finishing in the top 20 in points following the 26th race of the season at Richmond International Raceway — the final race of the regular season — and winning a race or two in order to lock up one of two wild card spots.

The hole he needs to pull himself from before the Chase begins is slightly deeper than it was just a week ago. Following his disappointing finish at Dover, he dropped from 24th to 26th in the standings, 224 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

However, in 14 starts at Pocono, Hamlin has performed admirably. In his first two visits to the track as a rookie in 2006, he captured the pole for both races and subsequently won both for the season sweep. He led 83 of 200 laps in the first race and 151 in the second. He was the sixth and last driver to sweep both Pocono races, joining Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Tim Richmond, Bobby Labonte and Johnson.

Hamlin also won the August 2009 and June 2010 races. His four wins at Pocono ties him with three legendary drivers — Richmond, Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip — for third on the all-time wins list, behind Jeff Gordon (six) and Elliott (five). He has nine top-10 finishes and leads all drivers over the past eight years in average driver rating (115.1), laps led (663) and fastest laps (430). His average starting position of 5.6 at Pocono is also tops among all drivers over the past eight years.

As much as Hamlin has excelled at the track, he knows that the track is still challenging to navigate with three distinctly different turns and straightaways.

“Since the track was repaved, it has changed a little bit, but you really have to get your car working in all three corners to make speed at Pocono,” Hamlin said. “The front straightaway is long, so your car really has to be setup well for Turn 3.”

In nine races this season, he has had three top-five finishes. Surprisingly, two of those performances came in his first two full races back from injury — a runner-up finish at Darlington followed by fourth at Charlotte. The flat tire last Sunday at Dover temporarily derailed his efforts to get back into the top 20. But, if there’s anyone that can get their season back on track at Pocono, it’s Hamlin.

Plus, it should be a great show watching how the new Generation 6 race cars perform on the Tricky Triangle.

“It’s going to be really fast in these new cars, and I’m looking forward to going out there Sunday to put on a good show for the fans,” Hamlin said.

And there’s a good chance Hamlin will be up near the front of the pack – racing to get back into the Chase.

FANTASY FOCUS: Two drivers worth taking considering this weekend for the Pocono race are one obvious choice, Jeff Gordon, and one dark-horse candidate, Clint Bowyer. Off the bat, Gordon is the all-time wins leader at Pocono with six. He won the rain-shortened August race last year to break a tie with Bill Elliott. He’s started on the pole twice and has an average driver rating of 100.9. In 40 races, he has 18 top fives, 28 top 10s and has finished on the lead lap 33 times with only five DNFs. Over the past eight years he is near the top in the number of green passes, quality passes and laps run in the top 15. While Bowyer has never won at Pocono, he performed admirably there, especially since 2007. In the past 12 races, he has one top five and seven top 10s. He’s finished in the top 20 in 11 of the 12 races; the only blemish in the June 2008 race where he finished 39th. In the two races last year, he finished sixth and eighth. He’s also among the leaders in pass differential and the number of green passes.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES

Next Race: Party In The Poconos 400

The Place: Pocono Raceway

The Date: Sunday, June 9

The Time: 1 p.m. (ET)

TV: TNT, 12 p.m. (ET)

Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90

Distance: 400 miles (160 laps)

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