Denny Hamlin faces enormous pressure at Richmond

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Hamlin has made the Chase in all five of his Cup seasons. Coming off his eight-victory campaign that ended with a runner-up finish to Jimmie Johnson, this year was supposed to be lock for a sixth straight trip. It's been a struggle, a Murphy's law kind of year, where whatever could go wrong has gone wrong, but Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 11 team have managed to reach Richmond in an advantageous spot to claim one of the wild cards.

They're even bringing a little momentum with them. Hamlin was seventh at Bristol two weeks ago and eighth at Atlanta on Tuesday. He hadn't put back-to-back top-10s together since Charlotte and Kansas 12 races ago.

"I feel like it's a step in the right direction," Hamlin said following Atlanta. "We're taking baby steps at this point."

Hamlin's sole win this season, at Michigan in June, is pure gold, maybe the most important of his career, and coupled with 12th-place standing in the points, it slots him into the second wild card. It's Hamlin's to lose.

Clint Bowyer and A.J. Allmendinger are the primary challengers. Both would have to win at Richmond and make up 12- and 11-point deficits to overtake Hamlin. Greg Biffle has an outside chance. He'd also have to win and he's 28 points behind Hamlin. They have a big mountain to climb, but it's not impossible. Bowyer had a win at Richmond in 2008 and has finished sixth in his last two races there. Allmendinger doesn't have a win in 141 Cup starts, but he's run well enough to be 13th in points this season and he gets better with every race.

Bowyer, Allmendinger and Biffle have nothing to lose. They can take risks on pit stops, tires and in traffic.

Hamlin doesn't want to back into the Chase. He'd rather go into it following a victory.

"You look at the years we won Richmond, it's been a huge momentum boost for us," Hamlin said. "It's like that win came just in time for us when we thought that we didn't know if we were going to be in the Chase with good momentum or bad, and we up and win the race and the next thing we know, we run well in the Chase from that point forward.

"I think Richmond is very important from that aspect and I know it's worked very well for us as far as being a springboard for running well in the Chase."

Speaking a week before getting on the track at Richmond, Hamlin exudes confidence. He doesn't believe there's a better track for him to be racing in the final race to make the Chase.

"I've always run well at Richmond," he said. "Regardless of whether we win or we run in the top five or whatever, we know we're going to go there and we're going to be competitive."

Hamlin's second-place finish in late April undoubtedly reassured him of his ability to run well at Richmond. It was his only top-five in the opening 12 races. Hamlin has only four top-fives in 25 races this year, far less than anticipated.

"With this new points system, it's about finishing and things like that and we just haven't done a good job of that this year," Hamlin explained. "We've struggled with a lot of mechanical issues that we're working through. That's put us in this position. I've made a few mistakes here and there, but overall we've just got to finish races."

Hamlin faced enormous pressure going into the Chase finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway last season, leading Jimmie Johnson by 15 points. Hamlin started 37th and early in the race he damaged the right-front of his FedEx Toyota by making contact with Biffle. Unable to recover, Hamlin finished 14th, while Johnson's second-place finish earned him his fifth straight Sprint Cup title.

It made for a long winter for Hamlin and the No. 11 Gibbs team, which many believed had cracked under the pressure. Their lack of experience in a showdown situation likely hurt them. It's also been argued that the failure to win the championship has carried over into this season. Maybe, but Hamlin's engine failures have been the serious problem, not a hangover from 2010.

Hamlin is the only Chase wild-card hopeful who doesn't need a win to make it and he's in front of all of them in points. But he still needs to be competitive to guard against Bowyer, Allmendinger or Biffle winning. Paul Menard could also jump into the Chase with a second victory and there are scenarios -- Brad Keselowski overtaking Tony Stewart for 10th in the points -- that could still change the Chase's wild cards.

"You never know what can happen," Hamlin said. "We need to go out there and get a solid finish and try to win. We know we're in if we win."

The pressure on Hamlin at Richmond is heavier than Homestead. Losing the championship was a severe disappointment, but not making the Chase would be a disaster for Hamlin and his team. The ghost of 2010 that has haunted them would be alive in 2011. But it's also an opportunity for Hamlin to send the ghost packing.