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."