LOUDON, N.H. — One and done? Title hopes up in smoke? For drivers who ran out of gas or good luck in Monday's Chase for the Championship opener, they have kept the faith that their championship pursuits aren't spoiled because of a bad start.
But that start doesn't help.
Denny Hamlin, inconsistent all season, is 12th in points and already 41 behind leader Kevin Harvick. Hamlin struggled all day at Chicagoland and staggered to a 31st-place finish.
Matt Kenseth (10th in the standings) and Jeff Gordon (11th), among others, ran out of gas in the final lap. But Gordon is only 25 points out of first. Not enviable, but no reason to panic — not with nine races left starting with today's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Hamlin, though, could find his hopes extinguished with a similar poor run today in the No. 11 Toyota. He qualified 28th Friday, worst among 12 Chase drivers.
"We're struggling right now just to get consistency and I can't pinpoint one particular place where we need to work," Hamlin said. "… It's painful at this moment."
A year ago, Hamlin was on the brink of his first championship heading into the finale at Homestead. He entered the race atop the standings but spun and slid through the grass, paving the way for Jimmie Johnson to win the Cup for a fifth straight year.
For Hamlin, it wasn't just a bitter end to the season — it seemed to set the tone for this one.
He had only one top 10 in the first eight races. He got hot late, but has only one victory (after leading the series with eight last season) and qualified for the Chase with a wild card.
"I don't think anyone has huge expectations for us this Chase," Hamlin said. "I personally do and still do. I think that we've really underachieved quite a bit, so you get frustrated."
Seven drivers are 10 to 20 points behind Harvick, including Johnson.
"It's just too early to be overly concerned," Johnson said.
He should know.
Johnson opened the 2006 Chase with a 39th-place finish, then used five straight top-two finishes to win his first title. He was 25th last year in the opener. So every driver usually gets at least one finish they can toss out over 10 pressure-packed races.
Yet Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, knows any chance at salvaging his season rides on New Hampshire, where he was third in the July race.
"We still have a shot if we get just … find the consistency that we had last year," he said