Denny Hamlin racing the Chase clock at Pocono
The stopwatch, it's often said in racing, never lies. If a young driver has talent, it will show up on the stopwatch after he turns a few laps. If an aging wheelman has lost his edge, the agony of lost time will be displayed on the stopwatch. And if a pit crew has shortcomings, it will be revealed by the stopwatch after a four-tire change.
In Denny Hamlin's current situation, the stopwatch says he's running out of time to make the Chase -- even though there are still 13 races left in the regular season.
After winning the pole at Dover (Del.) International Speedway last weekend, Hamlin spoke about his Chase chances. He missed four full races earlier this year because of a fractured vertebra he suffered in a last-lap crash at Fontana, Calif. in March, but he was optimistic. Though winless in 2013, he'd risen from 31st to 24th in the standings and firmly believed that he could qualify for the playoffs as a wildcard, which means he needs to be in the top 20 points at the end of the regular season and probably have two wins.
"We're treating it as if it is Chase scenarios right now," he said. "I'm driving like it or even more aggressive than I would be if I was in the Chase. We're going to have to capitalize on our money tracks. We're going to have win at those tracks."
That's now more important than ever for Hamlin, because after starting from the pole at Dover, he cut a tire late, plowed into the wall, and finished 34th, which dropped him to 27th in the standings. Many in the motor sports media have already started to pen the obituary on Hamlin's season, but I still think he has a legitimate shot at making the Chase -- if, that is, he can win on Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, one of his "money tracks" where he has four career wins in 14 starts.
Yet Hamlin hasn't reached Victory Lane since Pocono -- a quirky, 2.5-mile shaped triangle track -- was repaved late in 2011. "We had two legs up on everyone when we went there with the old pavement," he said last week. "We've got to really learn that race track again."
When an old, bumpy surface is repaved and made smooth, it obviously changes the track's handling characteristics, which in turn forces crew chiefs to alter their setups and drivers to recalibrate how they attack each corner. Since his injury in the spring, Hamlin has started to study old races more, analyze his past setups and measure the styles of other drivers. I think Hamlin's rededication will pay off this weekend at Pocono. He's my pick to take the checkered flag.
Qualifying will be key this weekend. At fast, slick, repaved tracks such as Pocono, it is extremely difficult to pass, which means early track position will be critical. Hamlin has won the pole the last two weeks; he needs another good run in qualifying to have a shot at notching win No. 1 of 2013.
Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:
1. Tony Stewart
After finishing a season-best seventh at Charlotte on May 26, Stewart hinted that, after struggling for more than three months with the aerodynamic setup and balance of his No. 14 Chevy, he felt that his team had just taken a giant leap forward. Eyes rolled in the garage. But it turns out that he was truth teller, because eight days later at Dover, he won his first race of the 2013 season.
Can he back up that victory with a strong run at Pocono, where he finished third last June? Stewart is still far from a lock to qualify for the Chase -- he's currently 16th in the standings and has only led laps in three of the 13 races this season -- but it's finally starting to look like the three-time Cup champ is stirring and awakening.
2. Jimmie Johnson
He was the class of the field at Dover last Sunday. But then on a late-restart, he was in second when he overtook and beat leader Juan Pablo Montoya to the starting line. Johnson slowed to allow Montoya to retake the lead, but Montoya laid back. Nonetheless, Johnson was flagged by NASCAR for an illegal restart and was forced to drive through the pits to serve a penalty. He wound up 17th after leading a race-high 143 laps. (For the record, I personally thought the penalty was grossly unfair because it was simply too close to call and in no way did the punishment fit the crime in this instance.)
Johnson has now finished outside of the top-15 in the last two races, which for him qualifies as a slump. He still holds a healthy points lead (30) over second-place driver Carl Edwards, and Johnson should be good for top-five run at Pocono, where he's collected four such finishes in his last six starts.
3. Joey Logano
Logano has been a hit-or-miss driver most of the season. One Sunday he'll finish third (Fontana) and the next he'll come in 23rd (Martinsville). Another race, he'll impressively finish third again (Richmond) and eight days later he'll wind up 35th (Talladega). But over the last two weekends Logano has cobbled together two nice races: a fifth-place run at Charlotte and a seventh-place finish at Dover. He's currently 18th in the standings and still very much a threat to earn one of the two Chase wild cards.
But Logano, like Hamlin, needs to probably win two races during the regular season to make it into the Chase. Pocono may present his best opportunity to reach Victory Lane. One year ago, Logano won this event from the pole, so he clearly has a feel for the repaved surface. What's more, his new team, Penske Racing, has traditionally performed well at Pocono; Penske teammate Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag here in the fall of 2011. So look for Logano to be among the leaders as the laps wind down on Sunday.
4. Jeff Gordon
Gordon is on the cusp of being in a place he hasn't visited since early March in Phoenix, after the second race of the season: the top-10 in points. After a strong run at Dover, where he came in third, Gordon is now 11th in the standings and looking like a driver who's suddenly caught the marathoner's equivalent of a second wind as the Cup series begins its grueling summer grind.
In his last five starts, Gordon has finished 11th or better four times. (He was caught up in a late wreck at Charlotte over Memorial Day weekend and finished 35th.) He has yet to win this season, but he appears to be steadily gaining speed. And he should be particularly fast on Sunday, because in the last two years no driver has had more success at Pocono than Gordon, who has won two of the last four races at the tricky triangle. Expect another top-five for the No. 24 team.