Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Preseason darling Denny Hamlin struggling in Sprint Cup

Denny Hamlin says of Sunday’s race at Martinsville, one of his best tracks, “I think it will be a telling race for sure, because it is a race you can typically stay out of trouble, and usually the top performers perform well there.”

Getty Images

Denny Hamlin says of Sunday’s race at Martinsville, one of his best tracks, “I think it will be a telling race for sure, because it is a race you can typically stay out of trouble, and usually the top performers perform well there.”

CONCORD, N.C. — Denny Hamlin stared silently at his car, his hands in the pockets of his firesuit, his hat pulled low on his head. He smiled, made a quick joke, then quickly turned serious with his crew chief.

Hamlin has no more time to waste, and everyone knows it.

The popular preseason pick to unseat four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson is off to a disappointing start in what many predicted would be a breakthrough season.

Instead, through the first five races, Hamlin is winless, hasn't scored a top 10 finish and is 19th in points. He has led 39 laps all season, 32 of them at Atlanta.

"He's a little disheartened. A little concerned," crew chief Mike Ford admitted. "But I would say optimistic."

With good reason.

The Sprint Cup series shifts this weekend to Martinsville Speedway, where Hamlin has two victories and eight top 10 finishes in nine starts. He ran a frustrating second to six-time Martinsville winner Johnson last spring, then flipped the finishing order in October for a gratifying victory.

So Hamlin, born in Brandon but raised in Virginia, goes home to a short track where he figures he can run top five "in reverse, blindfolded," knowing Sunday is the day he must jump-start his season.

Though team owner Joe Gibbs said Thursday that Hamlin, 29, traditionally starts slowly, he was only half-kidding about the importance of this weekend.

"I'll say this," Gibbs said, smiling, "if we have problems at Martinsville, you're going to see panic city."

In fairness, Hamnlin has not had a great deal of luck this season. His strategy in the Daytona 500 was to be in position to race for the win at the end, but he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch were shuffled out of traffic in the chaotic final laps, and Hamlin finished 17th.

Ford admits the No. 11 was off at Fontana, where a tire issue contributed to the 29th-place finish, and the car was just bad at Las Vegas, where Hamlin was 19th.

But Atlanta was encouraging, and if not for another tire problem, Hamlin figures he would have been top three instead of 21st. His third tire issue of the season last week at Bristol relegated him to 19th.

That's why Martinsville is so critical. The event will reveal the truth about Hamlin's season because if he doesn't contend there, he has a much bigger problem than anyone imagined.

"If we run sixth to 10th, we know we're not bringing good enough cars to the race track," Hamlin said. "If we're leading and we get caught up in a wreck, then we know it's another week (and) we just need a week without problems."

Still, there's a mental aspect, particularly with drivers trying to keep Johnson out of their heads. NASCAR's most dominant driver has won three of the season's first five races, success that can play mind games with everyone in the garage.

Hamlin is a prime target.

The offseason talk, including a spread in Sports Illustrated, was maddening attention for Ford, a quiet crew chief who prefers to operate off the radar.

"You'd rather take all the media and all the hype and just isolate your guys from it, but you know you can't do that," he said.

The challenge for Ford is keeping Hamlin focused on what they need to improve and having momentum when it matters most. Hamlin, for his part, has not lost his confidence. He's only 86 points out of 12th, and there's a long stretch in front of him. So there was no hesitation when he was asked this week if he'll make the 12-driver, 10-race Chase for the Championship to end the season.

"Yeah," he said, nodding. "Yeah. We're gonna make the Chase."


Sprint Cup points

Through five of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Kevin Harvick 774—

Matt Kenseth 773 1

Jimmie Johnson 760 14

Greg Biffle 750 24

Tony Stewart 685 89

Kurt Busch 677 97

Jeff Burton 677 97

Dale Earnhardt Jr. 621 153

Paul Menard 614 160

Kyle Busch 606 168

Jeff Gordon 603 171

Clint Bowyer 601 173

Up next

Goody's 500, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, 1 p.m. Sunday. TV: Ch. 13

Preseason darling Denny Hamlin struggling in Sprint Cup 03/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010 9:52pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays journal: Erasmo Ramirez ready to start a day after closing game

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — RHP Erasmo Ramirez was on the mound to finish Sunday's 15-inning marathon win over the Twins and will start tonight's game against the Rangers.

    The Rays’ Erasmo Ramirez throws 12 pitches in the 15th inning against the Twins to earn the save then says after the game that he’s ready to make his scheduled start against the Rangers: “My arm feels good.”
  2. Rays exhausted but happy after 15-inning win over Twins (w/video)

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — Before the Rays eventually won Sunday's 6½-hour, 15-inning marathon against the Twins 8-6, they did plenty to lose it. And we need to get that out of the way first.

    The Rays’ Evan Longoria enjoys a laugh after scoring, barely, to tie it in the ninth on Steven Souza Jr.’s two-out single.
  3. Tom Jones' Two Cents: ABC's Indy 500 coverage is stellar again

    TV and Radio

    Times columnist Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst from a weekend of televised sports.

    Best coverage

    Takuma Sato left, celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 as Helio Castroneves is a little late passing him. ABC’s coverage of the race is stellar throughout, with plenty of extras but no fake drama.
  4. Takuma Sato surprise winner of wreck-filled Indy 500

    Auto racing

    INDIANAPOLIS — Takuma Sato, a journeyman driver, became the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday when he held off three-time champion Helio Castroneves in a 230-mph wheel-rubbing duel to the finish.

    Scott Dixon’s car goes over the top of Jay Howard, soaring so high that Helio Castroneves drove under it while it was airborne. Stunningly, there were no serious injuries.
  5. Marc Topkin's takeaways from Sunday's Rays-Twins game

    The Heater

    The Rays won because they got two innings of good relief from each of the two pitchers who contributed to them losing Saturday's game, Danny Farquhar (who again struck out Miguel Sano) and Tommy Hunter, who both posted zeroes.