Can he make the Chase?
Since violently crashing into the wall at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., on March 24, Denny Hamlin has missed the last four Sprint Cup races. Hamlin, who is recovering from a compression fracture in his lower back, was cleared by doctors on Thursday to race at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday. So he'll be in his No. 11 FedEx Toyota -- at least for a few laps.
The plan for Hamlin this weekend is to participate in practice, qualify his car, then start the race. Soon after the green flag waves, he'll drop to the rear of the field and do everything possible to stay out of harm's way while remaining on the lead lap. Then at the first caution flag, he'll come to pit road and exit the cockpit as quickly as possible to make way for a replacement driver. Because Talladega is the biggest track on the Cup schedule -- 2.66 miles -- the driver transition should be completed before the No. 11 Camry falls a lap down.
By starting the race, Hamlin will receive whatever points his replacement earns for his finish. And Hamlin desperately needs points. Since sustaining the back injury and sitting out the last month, he has fallen from sixth to 29th in the standings.
With 17 races remaining in NASCAR's regular season, Hamlin's only chance of advancing to the Chase will be as a wild card. But to even qualify for that, Hamlin must be in the top 20 in points. He's currently 71 behind Kurt Busch, who is 20th in the standings. This gap should be manageable for Hamlin to bridge as long as he's in the car full time beginning next Saturday night at Darlington Speedway, which was the original date that doctors had targeted for his return.
But Hamlin likely needs to win at least two races before the start of the Chase to earn one of the two wild cards, which are awarded to drivers who are between 11th and 20th in the standings and who have the most victories. Hamlin's best chances at reaching Victory Lane will be at the two Pocono summer races (he has four wins in 14 career starts at the triangle-shaped track) and at Richmond (two wins at the short track in his last seven starts) in the regular season finale.
No question, Hamlin's charge to make the Chase will be one of the most compelling storylines in NASCAR this summer. Before his injury, he consistently ran in the top-five and had the look of a driver who was capable of winning his first championship. Has the injury changed his driving style? Will he be more cautious? Will he aggressively seek revenge against Joey Logano, who wrecked him at Fontana?
Those are all questions that won't be answered on Sunday. Hamlin's mission at Talladega is clear: Avoid trouble on the track and get the heck out of the car as quickly as possible.
Here are four other drivers to watch closely at 'Dega when the green flag waves in the heart of Alabama:
1. Tony Stewart
This has been a nightmare season for him. The three-time Cup champion has been a back-of-the-pack driver in the majority of the races and is currently 21st in the standings, the lowest he's ever been at the his point of a season in his 15 years on the Cup circuit.
Clearly, the team he owns, Stewart-Haas Racing, has not adapted well to the new car that was introduced in 2013, the so-called Gen-Six. But Stewart's season isn't lost yet. He traditionally comes alive during the summer months -- a former dirt-track racer, he loves hot, slippery tracks -- and he's eminently capable of winning multiple times between now and the start of the Chase, which would likely put him into the playoffs as a wild card.
Stewart has eight top-three finishes at Talladega in 28 career starts. He's widely regarded in the garage as one of the top restrictor-plate racers in the sport, and I think he'll author his first top-five finish of the season on Sunday.
2. Brad Keselowski
The reigning Cup champion, Keselowski consistently flourishes at Talladega. In 2009, while making just his fifth career start in the Cup series, he sent Carl Edwards into the fence as they charged to the finish line, and won his first Cup race. Last spring, Keselowski took the checkered flag again at 'Dega.
He has already proved that he's much more than a one-year wonder. Though he's yet to reach Victory Lane in 2013, he leads the Cup series in top 10 finishes, with seven, and is currently seventh in the standings. Look for him to contend on Sunday.
3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth has already won two races this season, but he's still reeling from a 50-point penalty that NASCAR imposed after the sanctioning body found an illegal part in his engine after his victory at Kansas Speedway on April 21. His team, Joe Gibbs Racing, is appealing the penalty, which will be heard on May 8.
Nonetheless, Kenseth should be fast on Sunday. He won two of the four restrictor-plate races last season, including the fall race at Talladega. Given his recent performances on NASCAR's fastest tracks, expect him to be running near the front in the closing laps.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
About a decade ago, Earnhardt positively owned Talladega. Between 2001 and '04, he won five of seven races here. And in the two that he didn't win over that stretch, he finished second.
After his last victory at there, in the fall of '04 -- Earnhardt uttered a four-letter word in the winner's circle and was docked 25 points by NASCAR. Mysteriously, he hasn't been the same since at the circuit's biggest track. In his subsequent 16 starts at 'Dega, he has twice as many finishes of 20th or worse (eight) as he does top 10s (four).
Well, it says here that will change this weekend. Earnhardt finished second at Daytona and I think he'll do better than that on Sunday. He's still the best plate racer in NASCAR in my book and he's my pick to win.