When Denny Hamlin departed Michigan International Speedway in June, he had vaulted to the top of the short list of favorites for the Sprint Cup championship. Written off by many after his knee surgery on March 31, and two days after winning at Martinsville, he gutted out a painful run to 30th at Phoenix, then proceeded to win four of his next eight races, including the one at MIS. Stories flowed about how Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing had overtaken Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports as the combination to beat.
That outlook changed quickly.
Hamlin's star dimmed as he went through a mini-slump of seven races with one-top five and two top-10s. It wasn't all performance-related. He was caught up in crashes at Infineon and Watkins Glen, but his FedEx Toyota also wasn't a contender at New Hampshire, Indianapolis or Chicago. Even a fifth at Pocono was a disappointment. He'd won there in June and, with four wins in 10 starts, it's his best track.
Back at Michigan last weekend, Hamlin climbed from starting 33rd into the lead with 11 laps to go. But Kevin Harvick roared past him and Hamlin had to settle for second. It was a good finish, but also frustrating for a couple of reasons.
Hamlin was gunning for the 10 bonus points for every win a driver takes into the Chase. He also knows that the Gibbs team must find him more speed to contend for the championship and he cited the need to cure a lingering electrical problem and find more horsepower.
"What costs us the most is we had some electrical issues again with our race team," Hamlin said in the post-race media conference at Michigan. "You can probably look up in the last two years how many times I've said that. We just keep having the same problems. So I couldn't run any tire blowers, any brake fans, no AC or anything to me. What really hurt us in the long run is not having cool tires. It beat us today. He (Harvick) beat us about 10 laps to go. We had about 30 laps on our tires."
Thirty laps are about two-thirds worn on a typical fuel segment. The tires shouldn't have been a problem while going the remaining distance. They weren't for Harvick.
"You know, I'm not sure we really had anything for him anyway, but it didn't make things easier when we weren't able to run any fans all day long," Hamlin said. "It was a little bit tasking on me to be as hot as I was. Once you're up front, your adrenaline gets going. That kind of overcomes things. Mechanically, we need to be a little better."
Hamlin is convinced that he's at a horsepower disadvantage to the Childress-Earnhardt engines that Harvick and the rest of the Richard Childress Racing and Earnhardt Ganassi drivers use.
"We heard that they were coming with the engine stuff this week (at Michigan)," Hamlin said. "We're not the best out there. I think the RCR camp has the best engines. Those guys, they're tough. They really got everything working right. Their cars are handling really well and they've got horsepower. Those two things are tough to beat.
"We're not just going to go up and make 50 more horsepower in the three weeks. That's a long process that happens. That's not the only place where I feel like we could be a little bit better. There are several other areas with our cars where I feel like we could be better. We can do some things now to help us maybe for later in the Chase. I've got a lot of stuff we need to improve on."
Hamlin did sow the seeds of momentum, which he needs, with his second place finish at Michigan. It was a show of strength despite the mechanical deficiencies and that should boost his confidence, too.
"This is the kind of run we needed to get back in the swing of things, but we still have to get better," Hamlin said. "We are definitely happy with that run. We are trying all we can to get 10 more bonus points, but Kevin (Harvick) had a really strong car. It showed all day. We just kind of snuck up there. I know we had a good car, but we never had really good track position.
"We were just hanging around eighth or 10th all day. I knew the capabilities of the car once we got out front. Mike (crew chief Ford) made a great call to stay out there (during the final caution, laps 169-172) and, luckily, it gave us a great shot to win it anyway."
It should be pointed out that Hamlin has five wins this season. Harvick has three. Hamlin and Johnson, also with five wins, would be the co-leaders in the Chase if it started this weekend at Bristol. Hamlin desperately wanted that sixth win at Michigan to give him a slight edge going into the Chase, though he is third in the points and can cruise into it.
"Win or wreck," Hamlin said of his thoughts in the closing laps at Michigan. "That was the only thing I was thinking. We're in a situation where winning is everything. I tried everything I can (to beat Harvick) and almost wrecked a couple of times. I could only drive the limits of the car and that's all we had."
Hamlin turned up the heat on the Gibbs team to find and fix the electrical problems and he got on the engine department for more horsepower. It was a declaration that he isn't giving up and he never wants to settle for second.
Harvick may be the current favorite to win the championship, but Hamlin is determined to give him a run for the money.