This is not necessarily what he expected.
Hamlin made it clear in numerous pre-Chase conversations that his biggest concerns entering the championship run were the first two races – at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway. Neither track is on his favorites list, and he has had a tough time gaining momentum early in previous Chases. His late-Chase rallies have been strong but have been not enough and too late.
So for Hamlin to recover from a mid-race slide at Loudon and roll home a strong second, despite not leading any laps, was a major plus.
He’s covered one-half of what he considers his problem area.
“It’s really important to start the Chase on a high note because more than likely it will be the Chase competitors who win these first two Chase races and who fill out the balance of the top 10,” Hamlin said. “You just can’t give anyone points in this series. We know from past experience that we are better in the second half of the Chase, and if we can just be right there heading to places like Martinsville, Texas and Homestead, then we have a good shot.
“We had a good run at Loudon – a lot of things went our way when it maybe looked bad there for a moment, but we kept going and came out of there just where we wanted to be.”
His team should approach Dover as an opportunity, Hamlin said.
“We really need to approach it like any other race,” he said. “We know it’s big and that we are in a good position, but we aren’t taking anything for granted. We know what we need to do, and it’s just like the other weekends.
“At Dover, qualifying is very important because pit road there is a scary place, so we’ll be hoping to improve there, for sure. Being the points leader doesn’t make a difference. You can’t let that interfere with the focus of the team because there is so much racing left to do. We’ve learned that over the years.”
Hamlin has never finished higher than fourth in a race at Dover, and his record there is pockmarked with runs of 36th, 38th (twice) and 43rd.
In the Chase last season, the No. 11 team wrestled with handling problems most of the day, and Hamlin finished 22nd. But he had a solid fourth in the first race at the track this season.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.