A key player in the Chase this fall may wind up being a driver who is not even in the playoffs: Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin's season, you'll recall, began with so much promise: He finished 14th at Daytona and then third at Phoenix. At the time, he was fourth in the standings and looking like a serious title contender.
But then in the fifth race of 2013, everything fell apart for the number 11 team on a sun-splashed afternoon in California. After winning the pole at Fontana, Hamlin was charging for the checkered flag on the final lap. As Hamlin entered the final turn, at about 160 mph, Joey Logano nudged Hamlin's Toyota. The bump sent Hamlin spinning into the inside wall. It was a wicked, harrowing, head-on impact. Hamlin crawled out of his cockpit then fell to the ground. He'd suffered a broken vertebra in his lower back. And just like that, his quest for a first championship was essentially over. His season was lost.
He missed four races but, frankly, he hasn't been the same driver since that day in March in California. The statistics bear that out: Hamlin, who won five races in 2012, hasn't finished in the top 10 in his last 14 starts and he's currently 25th in the standings.
So how, you ask, can he influence who will win the Cup in November? Hamlin has essentially become a test driver for Joe Gibbs Racing and his teammates Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. During prerace practice sessions Hamlin and his crew will test different setups in his car to see if they can find more speed. All information they glean is promptly passed along to the teams of Kenseth and Busch. Thanks to Hamlin, it's not a mere coincidence, in my view, that Kenseth and Busch are first and second, respectively, in the standings.
"Denny has been excited about being in that position," says Busch, who played a similar role for the Gibbs teams last year when he missed the Chase. "He has come over to our haulers during practices or after practices ... [when] he seems to find something that he likes and then he shares it with the rest of us. So he wants the rest of us to succeed, which is great that we've got a teammate like that."
Yes, Hamlin is going to be an X-factor over the final eight races of the season. He'll certainly be in the ear of his teammates before the race on Sunday at Dover International Raceway, where Kenseth and Busch will be two of the five drivers I'll be watching closely when the green flag drops on Chase Race No. 3.
1. Matt Kenseth
After winning the first two races of the Chase, Kenseth is the clear title favorite. And now he heads to a track where he traditionally has flourished. In his last 15 starts at the Monster Mile, he has two wins and 10 top-five finishes. He blew an engine at Dover in June and wound up 40th, but before that mechanical failure, he had led 29 laps and appeared to have one of the fastest cars in the field.
Throughout his career, Kenseth's bread-and-butter tracks have been the 1.5-milers. Four of the last seven events of the season take place at these intermediate-length venues. So he is simply trying to maintain his points advantage until the series moves to his favorite tracks. Expect him to be relatively conservative on Sunday, both on the track and in the pits, and aim for a top-five run.
2. Kyle Busch
It appears that the 28-year-old Busch is coming of age before our eyes. So far in the Chase he has finished second at Chicagoland and second at Loudon. He's showing newfound patience and prudence behind the wheel. As a result, he trails Kenseth by only 14 points in the standings.
I think Busch will make up ground on his teammate on Sunday by taking his first-ever checkered flag in a playoff race. (So far, he's 0-for 51-in Chase races). In his last two starts at Dover, Busch has led more laps (452) than any other driver. He has two career wins on the high-banks of the Monster Mile, and it says here that he'll notch No. 3 on Sunday.
3. Jimmie Johnson
No other driver has dominated Dover in recent years like Johnson, who is currently third in the standings. Since 2005, he has seven wins at the track. What's more, in his last 10 starts at the Monster Mile, Johnson has led at least 43 laps in every race.
I think this race will turn out to be a microcosm of the entire 2013 Chase, with the top-three drivers -- Kenseth, Busch and Johnson -- all in the front as the laps wind down. The prediction here is that Johnson comes in second on Sunday.
4. Kasey Kahne
Kahne has had a miserable Chase. After coming in 12th at Chicago, he struggled to a 37th place finish at New Hampshire. He's currently 13th in the Chase standings -- in other words, he's dead last among the playoff drivers -- and this means there will be no championship this season for the 33-year-old from Enumclaw, Wash.
But he should be fast on Sunday. He had a speedy, strong-handling car at Dover in the spring (don't be deceived by his 23rd place finish) and this is a driver and a team that can afford to be aggressive with pit strategy to try to steal a win.
5. Carl Edwards
Though Edwards, the regular season points champion, has performed adequately so far in the Chase (11th at Chicago and ninth at Loudon), he's already in danger of falling out of title contention. Currently fourth in the standings, he trails Kenseth by 36 points, which is basically the same as 36 positions on the track.
So Edwards must keep the leaders in his sights as soon from the moment the green flag falls, which he should be able to do. In 18 career starts at Dover, his average finish is an impressive 8.6, which makes the Monster Mile, statistically, his third best track on the schedule, behind Fontana (8.4) and Homestead (6.0). Anything less than a top-five for Edwards on Sunday would be considered a major disappointment for the number 99 team.