Denny Hamlin is big on plans.
Last year before the 10-race Chase began, he sat at a computer and analyzed every playoff track, targeting where he needed to finish in each event to win the championship.
He almost pulled it off, as everything went according to his calculations for the first eight races. But then, with him holding a 33-point lead in the standings over Jimmie Johnson, it all fell apart. Poor fuel mileage doomed him at Phoenix in the penultimate event of the season and a wreck at Homestead ultimately wiped out his title hopes. He finished 39 points behind Johnson in the final standings, but took heart in knowing two things. One, he had the fastest car for the majority of the Chase; and two, his master plan nearly worked.
At the midway point of the 2011 regular season, Hamlin has a new big-picture plan. So far, his season has been surprisingly underwhelming. After seven races, he was 20th in the standings. Everything about the No. 11 team looked a little off: he suffered mechanical failures (a blown engine at Fontana caused him to finish 39th), he endured lethargic pit stops, and he even made a few uncharacteristic mistakes behind the wheel. Most worrisome for Hamlin: His Toyota simply didn't possess the raw speed it had flashed during the Chase. Indeed, two months into the season, it appeared that Hamlin -- a popular preseason pick to dethrone five-time defending Cup champion Johnson -- wouldn't even qualify for the Chase.
Yet here he is, just six races removed from floundering at 20th in the standings, all the way up to 11th. His Toyota still isn't as fast as the Roush-Fenway Fords -- and at this point in the season, it's clear that Roush possesses a slight mechanical advantage over the rest of the field -- but Hamlin is starting to surge.
Thanks to fast pit stops and smart fuel calculations by crew chief Mike Forde, Hamlin came in third last week at Kansas. He's finished in the top-10 in four of the last five races, and on Sunday he heads to one of his best tracks on the circuit, Pocono Raceway.
So what's Hamlin's plan for the rest of the regular season? "Fifth [in points] is a good number and a feasible goal we can reach [by the end of the regular season]," Hamlin says. "We need to be consistent and we need to learn how to finish races consistently in the top-5, not top-10 ... We obviously are only at the halfway point to the Chase. We've made up a lot of distance in these last few weeks, so we have to keep that going."
I think Hamlin will do just that on Sunday. He swept both Pocono races in his rookie year of 2006 and he's won two of the last three starts at the triangle-shaped track. Clearly, he knows how to navigate this unique track as well as any driver on the Cup circuit. It says here he'll zoom up the standings on Sunday by winning his first race of the year.
Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies at Pocono, in what promises to be one of the longest races (hello four-plus hours) of the season:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For two consecutive weeks Earnhardt has been this close to snapping his winless streak, which currently sits at 106 races. At Charlotte on May 29 Earnhardt was in the lead with less than a mile to go when he ran out of gas; he finished seventh. Last Sunday it appeared all but certain that Brad Keselowski would run out of gas before he took the checkered flag, but he didn't and Earnhardt, who this time was flush with fuel, came in second.
Still, this has been a banner season for Earnhardt. Currently third in the standings, Earnhardt appears to be a solid bet to qualify for his first Chase in three years. Pocono has never been one of his better tracks -- in 22 career starts, his average finish here is 17.9 -- but given the way he's currently running, another top-5 for the No. 88 team seems attainable. And who knows? With a little racing luck, that winless streak could end on Sunday.
2. Tony Stewart
Mark this down: Stewart will win a race within the next month. No driver is better at running on hot, slick surfaces than Stewart. Why is he so good when the temperatures rise? Simple: He grew up racing on dirt, where cars slip and slide all over the track as if on ice. So handling a loose race car -- meaning, the back end of the car slides up the track through the turns, which is what happens when surfaces are sun-baked and slick -- is virtually second nature to Stewart.
Stewart, who is currently eighth in the standings, should be a serious contender on Sunday. In his last four starts at Pocono, he has a win, a second-place finish, a third and a 10th. Yes, barring a mechanical issue or a wreck, he should be running with the leaders as the laps wind down.
3. Kurt Busch
Like Hamlin, Busch is coming on. After weeks of bickering with his crew about the quality of his pit stops and the quality of his car, Busch was the driver to beat at Kansas last week. He led a race-high 152 laps and, if the race hadn't devolved into a game of fuel mileage, he likely would have won. Instead, he came in ninth and now is sixth in the standings.
Busch has always been something of a streaky driver, and when he gets hot, he can rip off several top-5 runs with apparent ease. Look for him to be very, very fast at Pocono (where he has two career wins) and next week at Michigan (where he also has two career victories).
4. Carl Edwards
Even though Edwards has two career wins at Pocono, this isn't one of his strongest tracks. After all, he's finished outside of the top-20 three times in 12 career starts there and he's cracked the top-10 just once in his last three runs at Pocono.
Still, expect Edwards to be a factor on Sunday. Why? Put simply, he has been fast at every track so far in 2011, which is why he's the points leader and why he's the favorite to be hoisting the big trophy at season's end. It's possible that another team (most likely Hendrick Motorsports, in my opinion) will find something in the setup of their cars to put them on an equal mechanical playing field with Edwards and the Roush-Fenway Fords, but for now, Edwards has a tick more speed than anyone else on the circuit. Will this translate into a win on Sunday? Well, no one in the garage would be surprised if it did.