Second chance for Hamlin?

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, sits in his car in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 1, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

FORT WORTH, TX – NOVEMBER 01: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, sits in his car in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 1, 2014 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

FORT WORTH, Tex.—In 2010, Denny Hamlin won the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas and built a 33-point lead over second-place Jimmie Johnson with two races left in the season.

A strategic mistake at Phoenix, however, trimmed Hamlin’s advantage to 15 points, and in the season finale at Homestead, the weekend went horribly wrong for the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Hamlin qualified 37th and started deep in the field. On Lap 24, he collided with Greg Biffle’s Ford exiting Turn 2 and spun through the infield. Hamlin rallied to finish 14th but lost the title to Johnson, who secured the championship with a second-place run.

If Hamlin gets a shot at redemption by surviving the Chase’s Eliminator Round, he believes the new championship format—with the highest finisher among four eligible drivers winning the title—will dictate a different approach to the deciding race.

“Now, I think you have to go with the mentality of you have to win that final race to be a champion,” Hamlin said. “I feel like if you are part of that championship four now — you have to know that you can win, if you want to win a championship.

“In 2010, we went in with a fairly minimal lead. I think we had to finish within three spots of Jimmie (Johnson) that weekend.  We just had a bad weekend overall, and for some reason, I just never felt it that entire weekend. None of the days just felt right at all.”

From Hamlin’s point a view, another major difference between this season and 2010 is the level of expectation, which was much higher for the No. 11 team four years ago.

“We had won so many races that year that everyone expected us to go out there and win,” Hamlin said. “I feel like now we’re kind of on that house money-type thing where people aren’t expecting us to be here. Everywhere we go from here on out is a bonus, and I feel like we’ve had an off-year with our race team and our cars.

“Everything has been not nearly as stellar as it was in 2010, so if we can somehow pull off an upset this year, it will be way more gratifying than if we won in 2010 — where we kind of dominated and won all the races.”

Mixed bag for Chase drivers in morning practice

Chase driver Carl Edwards, needing a strong showing after last week’s 20th-place finish at Martinsville, led Saturday morning practice at Texas with a lap at 196.342 mph. Edwards is sixth in the standings, 20 points behind Chase leader Jeff Gordon.

The two drivers behind Edwards, however, weren’t as fortunate. Brad Keselowski (seventh in points) showed little improvement over his 26th-place qualifying effort, practicing 25th at 190.691 mph. Kevin Harvick (eighth in points) was 16th on the speed chart at 192.616 mph.

Both Harvick, who was 11th in final practice, and Keselowski, who was 14th, likely will need a victory in one of the next two races to advance past the Chase’s Eliminator Round.

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