The Chicagoland Sunday could have blown up in Denny Hamlin’s face and stained the entire Chase.
Instead, Hamlin, who has been down this road of disappointment in the Chase, almost immediately made a U-turn, predicting after a sour result last week that he will win Sunday’s Sylvania 300, the second race in the playoffs.
Hamlin ran out of fuel on the final lap of last week’s race, turning a good day into a mediocre one – and a 16th-place finish. The team’s fuel calculations were correct, but the problem developed because Hamlin didn’t get a full fuel load on his final pit stop. He thus dropped from the Chase point lead into a tie for fourth.
“I think it's another learning thing,” Hamlin said of the Chicago experience. “It seems like we always find the freak mistakes and accidents that can happen within a
team and what can happen with your car, and we just found another one. Basically, now we know what our priority is on the last stop.
“He (Scott Wood, gas man) knows that. He knew it. He was trying to do his best to get the adjustments that Darian (Grubb, crew chief) wanted. I think he was in a tough spot. He didn't want to disappoint the crew chief with not having the adjustment, but ultimately there's three things you need to finish the race. You need fuel, tires and a motor. We all know that now."
Hamlin said Wood took the Chicagoland finish hard.
“Scott came up to me afterwards and just was – he was upset,” he said. “It's weird to see a man that size get upset as much as he was, but for me it kind of makes you put your arm around him and be like, 'It's all right, dude. It's OK. We'll make it up. This is just a bump in the road toward hopefully a championship run.'
“I got texts from probably over half of the guys (on the team) saying, 'We appreciate what you said about Scott, because he was down in the dumps.' "
The best way to recover, Hamlin said, is to jump in the race car again.
"When you see highlights, it frustrates you because you're like – it looks so bad where we're at,” he said. “It's like, 'We didn't run that way. We were right there with those guys,' and so, yeah, it's frustrating, but literally right when you get in the race car for the next week it's like, 'What happened last week? I don't even remember.' I'm glad to finally get back in the race car."
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.