Brooklyn, MI – Denny Hamlin has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship in each of his first five seasons, but this could be the year the Joe Gibbs Racing driver misses the playoffs if things don't turn around for his team in a hurry.
While his JGR teammate Kyle Busch became the first driver to secure a Chase berth by winning Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway, Hamlin is barely holding on to a playoff spot. He fell two positions to 14th in points following his 35th-place finish at Michigan. Hamlin dealt with an ill-handling car before he made contact with the wall and had to spend 15 laps in the garage for repairs just past the halfway point.
Right now, Hamlin holds the second wild card spot based on his win at Michigan in June. Brad Keselowski occupies the first position based on his wins at Kansas and Pocono. Keselowski continues to soar in the rankings. He finished third at Michigan and climbed up to 12th in points.
Hamlin's season so far has been a letdown compared to last year when he scored a series-high eight wins and finished second to Jimmie Johnson in the point standings. His season has really turned for the worst the past several weeks, with finishes no better than 15th in the last four races.
"Obviously, our confidence isn't as good as what the 18 [Kyle Busch] is at this point," Hamlin said. "At this point last year, we had a lot of confidence. In my opinion, the cars were really easy to drive for me, and the 18 has taken what we've learned over the last year, and they've applied it and are running better than anyone right now."
Last week at Watkins Glen, NY, Hamlin slammed head on into the turn one barrier after blowing a tire and losing his brakes.
Hamlin came to Michigan with a Toyota Racing Development engine under his hood for the first time. His No.11 team recently switched from engines supplied by Joe Gibbs Racing to ones provided by TRD. Hamlin has been plagued with motor problems throughout the season.
JGR is hopeful Hamlin's team can bounce back quickly to assure them a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
"I feel like Denny and those guys have the confidence and the ability to come back and finish strong," JGR president J.D. Gibbs said after the Michigan race. "It's our hope that the guys will rebound and finish strong these last few races at tracks that he's done well at in the past."
Just three races remain before the start of the Chase -- Bristol (Saturday), Atlanta (September 4) and Richmond (September 10).
"There's a lot of good racetracks for us," Hamlin said. "There's Richmond, Atlanta and Bristol, and we've run well at all of them. We have to get this ship up and pointing back in the right direction, and it's going to take a lot of hard work to do it. We'll get through it, and we'll try to get in there in these last three races."
Hamlin has actually struggled at Bristol lately, finishing 19th or worse in the last three races there. He suffered engine failure and finished 43rd at Atlanta one year ago. Richmond has been one of his best tracks, where he has finished either first or second in three of the last four races.
Obviously, not making the Chase would be a huge disappointment for Hamlin, but it's something that wouldn't come as a big surprise to him right now.
"That's part of the sport," he said. "How many Super Bowl teams don't make the playoff the next year? It's just so hard, because any time you're on top in our sport, there's 42 guys that are hungry to beat you."
Hamlin and his crew chief, Mike Ford, have got a lot of homework ahead of them in the next few weeks if they want to make the Chase for the sixth consecutive year.