CUP: Man On A Mission

The numbers aren’t pleasant for Denny Hamlin

These things happen when you miss four races.

Eleven races into the season, and, more importantly, 15 races before the Chase for the Sprint Cup cutoff, Hamlin sits in a tie for 26th in the point standings, 226 out of first place and 118 out of automatic Chase qualification. Hamlin’s immediate goal is the top 20, a standing that potentially would qualify him for a Chase wild-card spot if he scores a victory or two.

So the avenue for Hamlin and his team is clear – go all out for everything over the next few months.

That strategy was in evidence Thursday night as Hamlin scored the sort of qualifying lap that isn’t often seen these days. On a non-restrictor-plate track, he ran 195.624 mph in winning the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, destroying the old record of 193.708 and easily bettering the speed of second-place Kurt Busch (195.221).

It was dangerous, Hamlin admitted. A slipup could have crippled his car. But in risk there was reward – the first starting spot and, more importantly, the No. 1 pit stall for the longest race of the season.

“We have a mission ahead and that is to try to make the Chase,” Hamlin said. “The best way to do that is to win races. To win races, you have to have every advantage you can, and one of them is having the No. 1 pit stall.”

Hamlin missed four races after a brutal crash March 24 at Auto Club Speedway. He is virtually all the way back from a back fracture, but he faces a tough road to contend for his first championship.

“I think ultimately getting the big trophy on Sunday is the validation that you're truly back,” he said. “For me, it's going to take some wins and some really good consistency throughout these summer months to put ourselves in position to have a chance at a championship. That's what we're here for. Even these small victories, though, give me that confidence that I'm still capable, and I'm still able to do the job at 100 percent like I should be.”

He said he isn’t limited by his physical condition, a fact he basically proved two weeks ago at Darlington Raceway by finishing a strong second in the Southern 500, one of the most punishing races for the season.

“As far as my treatment, we don't have any scans scheduled in the next few weeks – probably a few months out, I would say, we'll check it again. Just changing up my workouts and doing different things and continuing to work on my twisting ability and things like that. I think that I'm not limited in any way in any kind of activity from here on out."

The mission continues.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.