Martinsville Speedway might be Hamlin’s last and best shot at avoiding his first winless season in the Sprint Cup Series since 2005
Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup doubleheader at Martinsville in what might be his last shot at avoiding his first winless season in NASCAR’s national series since 2005. “I don’t feel any kind of entitlement to being a favorite, especially how we’ve run these last six months or so has been very tough. We’ve definitely been sort of a nonfactor as far as race wins are concerned.”
Hamlin has been largely absent from contention since missing four races with a broken back suffered in a crash while battling Joey Logano for a win at Auto Club Speedway in March. He is ranked 24th in the points standings and has five top 10s in 28 starts — and only two in 20 races since scoring consecutive top fives in his return.
That might have been why Johnson, who leads active drivers with eight wins at Martinsville, neglected to include Hamlin when mulling who might be his primary threats Sunday. The five-time champion listed Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch but omitted Hamlin, who emerged as Johnson’s primary Martinsville competition while winning four of six from 2008-10 but hasn’t finished higher than fifth in his past four starts here.”
“For the competition or anyone to think the (team) is going to be a favorite going into a track where we’ve struggled to run top 10 lately would be farfetched,” Hamlin said. “However, I’m pretty sure and pretty confident that we’re going to be a pretty larger force on Sunday.”
Missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his eight seasons, Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota has been turned into an R&D team that is testing setups and engines for 2014 and sometimes with disastrous results. He suffered an engine failure last week at Talladega Superspeedway that was his third in eight races, and the 38th marked his ninth finish of 30th or worse this season.
“It’s tough because my fans see the struggles and the blown engines, but those are things we signed up for when we didn’t make the Chase,” Hamlin said. “We decided it would be best to work on next year. Everything we’ve done has been focused on running well next year.
“We’ve not thrown away this year but really shifted our focus to an engine that works good for next year and a chassis setup that works good, and we’d like to get a little momentum with it.”
Martinsville would be a good place to start. The shortest track on the schedule always has been a home-state favorite for the Chesterfield, Va., native, but it also has been the site of his greatest triumphs. Hamlin has more top 10s (12) and top fives (nine) here than any other track and his four wins are tied with Pocono Raceway.
That’s why he was able to crack a rare grin Friday while joking about whether sponsor FedEx would have boxes for shipping the grandfather clock (the trophy awarded Martinsville winners).
“If we get a win, by no means will it fix or make us feel good about our year, but it will give us something to smile about in the future,” said Hamlin, who was feeling confident enough to tell reporters “See you Sunday night” after his pole-winning news conference.
There are other reasons for happiness this weekend. As the defending winner of the truck race, Hamlin’s Toyota Tundra will carry the Jordan Brand sponsorship of NBA legend Michael Jordan (“One of the stipulations that Michael had was I had to guarantee a win.”), and he’s been feeling healthy again after battling back pain related to bulging disks but still is mulling an offseason operation.
“I still haven’t met with the doctors to figure out the best option,” he said. “I have been feeling so much better this last month or so that I’d like to steer away from surgery if possible. We still have an issue there that we have to address in the next month or so.”
In the meantime, the focus is on trying to end a winless streak that stands at 40 races and stretches over a year (New Hampshire, September 2002).
The next trip to victory lane would be the sweetest.
“It will make me appreciate that moment that much more because it’s been such a struggle,” said Hamlin, who has 22 wins in NASCAR’s premier series. “Not only just the back stuff, but when you lose that edge of being at the top of your sport, it’s making you fight that much harder to get back to the top. The moment in which we become our old race team that we’ve been for the last seven and a half years, and we start winning races again … it will be overwhelming.
“It’s been a very trying year, but you’ve just got to suck it up and realize that there’s a lot of great drivers that have missed the Chase once or twice and a lot of great drivers that have gone winless throughout a season. It doesn’t make them any less of a driver or hurt their legacy at all because we all know how good they are, and we’ve just got to battle through it. This has just been one of those years that’s going to make you tougher and stronger in the long run.”
Friday’s qualifying results
1. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 99.595.
2. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 99.344.
3. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 99.344.
4. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 99.183.
5. (15) Clint Bowyer, Toyota, 99.162.
6. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 99.084.
7. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 99.007.
8. (34) David Ragan, Ford, 98.815.
9. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 98.79.
10. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 98.774.
11. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 98.748.
12. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 98.712.
13. (42) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 98.702.
14. (99) Carl Edwards, Ford, 98.656.
15. (56) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 98.553.
16. (9) Marcos Ambrose, Ford, 98.553.
17. (39) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 98.527.
18. (41) Aric Almirola, Ford, 98.41.
19. (78) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 98.4.
20. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 98.394.
21. (14) Mark Martin, Chevrolet, 98.379.
22. (31) Jeff Burton, Chevrolet, 98.328.
23. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 98.129.
24. (40) Landon Cassill, Chevrolet, 98.053.
25. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 98.048.
26. (51) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 97.972.
27. (38) David Gilliland, Ford, 97.855.
28. (13) Casey Mears, Ford, 97.83.
29. (7) Dave Blaney, Chevrolet, 97.78.
30. (30) Cole Whitt, Toyota, 97.78.
31. (35) Josh Wise, Ford, 97.674.
32. (93) Travis Kvapil, Toyota, 97.618.
33. (16) Greg Biffle, Ford, 97.568.
34. (47) Bobby Labonte, Toyota, 97.498.
35. (55) Elliott Sadler, Toyota, 97.473.
36. (98) Michael McDowell, Ford, 97.448.
37. (36) J.J. Yeley, Chevrolet, Owner Points.
38. (32) Ken Schrader, Ford, Owner Points.
39. (33) Tony Raines, Chevrolet, Owner Points.
40. (87) Joe Nemechek, Toyota, Owner Points.
41. (10) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, Owner Points.
42. (95) Reed Sorenson, Ford, Owner Points.
43. (83) David Reutimann, Toyota, Owner Points.