Twenty points down heading into the Round of 8 elimination race at ISM Raceway, Denny Hamlin’s knows that failure is a real possibility.
One of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff favorites entering last Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, Hamlin lost control of his car on Lap 80 while running in the top 10, slid through the infield grass, damaged the splitter on the No. 11 Toyota and ultimately finished 28th.
Hamlin comes to Phoenix facing an uphill battle more challenging than a hike up Rattlesnake Hill, which overlooks the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert.
Hamlin has known failure at Phoenix before. In 2010, under a different non-elimination scoring system, Hamlin held a 33-point lead over Jimmie Johnson but lost 18 points of his advantage at Phoenix on an errant pit call.
A week later, his best chance for a series championship today evaporated early in the season finale at Homestead, after Hamlin qualified 37th, wrecked early, finished 14th and handed Johnson his fifth straight title.
In Sunday’s Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Hamlin, who qualified third on Saturday, must make up 22 points on pole winner Kyle Busch or 20 points on Joey Logano, the two drivers immediately ahead of him in the Playoff standings. A race win also would earn a spot in the Championship 4.
Even if he doesn’t advance, however, Hamlin will still consider this season a success.
“No matter what, I will not consider this year any sort of a failure,” Hamlin said. “We, as Mark Martin would say, we just didn’t score enough points. We had a great year, we won races, we led more laps than we have in a long time and more top fives than anybody in the series.
“It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not. I think you have to adjust that. One race, winner take all, or a three-race round – anything can happen, and it did for us.”