This could be the bump in the road for Denny Hamlin and his quest.
Since returning full-time to the Sprint Cup tour and scoring a second-place finish at Darlington and a fourth at Charlotte, Hamlin has climbed the point standings from 31st to 24th. His immediate goal is to reach the points top 20, a spot that could qualify him for a Chase wild-card spot, assuming he scores a win or two over the next several months.
Hamlin’s momentum, though, could be challenged by Sunday’s “opponent,” Dover International Speedway. Most drivers have a track or two that confounds them, and Dover has been a nemesis for Hamlin (oddly, the track is the favorite of Matt Kenseth, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate). In 14 Sprint Cup races here, Hamlin has only five top-10 runs and no victories.
He possibly KO’d the jinx here last September when he won the pole and finished eighth.
“I spent a lot of time studying last year in the last week or two leading up to the Dover Chase race, and obviously our performance was a ton better by getting the pole and really running top three all day long,” Hamlin said. “Hopefully, that was the turning point.
“We saw today in practice that we had some speed (sixth). We possibly could have turned the corner here. We'll actually see the results on Sunday. But I think that we're narrowing our bad tracks to a very few here in the last couple years."
Even at a track that has given him problems, Hamlin has to push it to the limit. He’s on the outside looking in at the Chase and needs every positive he can stack.
His driving and his cars have been excellent since he returned from a back injury, but the odds remain against him in the pursuit of the Chase.
"I think our only play is to be aggressive,” Hamlin said. “I think that to come here and try to get a good points day is irrelevant because if we don't win then we're really not accomplishing much. Obviously, we still have to get inside the top 20, but I think we can do that over the course of the next 13 or 14 weeks.
“We're going to need to win races so we're going to do everything we can to try to get that. I'll be as aggressive as I can, so I'm treating this as more of an offensive race than a defensive one, for sure."
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com 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.