FORT WORTH, Texas – Denny Hamlin is hoping for another turning point in Texas since the anticipated trip to another one of his best tracks only brought more bad luck.
Hamlin goes for his third consecutive win at the 1½-mile, high-banked Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night. An untimely caution at Martinsville last week took him from the front of the pack to a lap down and a 12th-place finish, ending his three-race winning streak at the half-mile, paperclip-shaped track in his home state of Virginia.
"For me, the panic level is not that high, but it is creeping there because ultimately it's not about the number of points that you're behind 10th at this point, it's how many guys separate you from that," said Hamlin, who is 19th in points. "In my head, I know that we're going to run well."
Last April, Hamlin limped into Texas following surgery to repair the torn ACL in his left knee. He won the race, and later called it the "turning point" in his season when he finished a career-best second in points and doubled his victory total from eight to 16.
Hamlin said his No. 11 Toyota has plenty of speed, but has been hampered by fuel mileage and some pit issues that can also be corrected.
"It's not like we're going out and we're scratching our heads and we don't have the speed," he said. "Things look worse in results than what we're actually performing on the race track."
Another reason for optimism is that Kyle Busch, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, is the points leader and has led at least 151 laps in each of the last three races. Busch has a win and three other top-three finishes through six races.
"We're under the same roof, and I have those same race cars," Hamlin said. "His pit crew has been phenomenal and all that stuff, and it makes it look so good on the race track when you can have those solid stops. That's something that we've struggled with, our inconsistency, and obviously fuel mileage. ... Those couple of little small details is what makes us look so far apart."
The only driver with three Cup victories at Texas Motor Speedway is Carl Edwards, second in points behind Busch heading into the first night race of this season — and the first ever under the big, bright stars in the Lone Star State.
Kevin Harvick, who has finished top 10 in half of his 16 Texas starts, is coming off consecutive wins this season.
That has given him some leeway under NASCAR's new qualifying standards for the 12-drive Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and could eventually change his approach over the next 20 races until the Chase. Two wild-cards will be given to drivers with the most wins not ranked in the top 10, and two wins would have been enough last year.
"I don't think we will race any different when we are at the race track because we are here to win races and get the best finish that you can," Harvick said. 'But I think as a team it does allow you to plan and think of things you want to try, cars you want to build Maybe six or seven weeks down the road it could possibly change something."
Harvick passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with four laps remaining at Martinsville, extending the winless streak for NASCAR's most popular driver to 99 consecutive races since June 2008.
Earnhardt got his first Sprint Cup and Nationwide victories at Texas, where he has led 446 laps in his 17 starts.
"I really don't know how close we are to getting our first win. In that race last week, we were about a fifth to seventh place car and we made some good pit calls near the last half of the race to get ourselves in position," Earnhardt said. "We still have a step or two to go, but we're getting better and we feel pretty competitive every week."
Hamlin started fifth and led 89 laps at Martinsville. Because of the poor fuel mileage, he had to pit a few laps before the rest of the lead group before a caution flag came out only a few laps later.
Before getting caught up in a late wreck at Daytona, Hamlin was running third. He finished seventh at Las Vegas after starting at the back of the field because of an engine change.
"I feel like I've had race-winning cars a couple of times this year," Hamlin said. "I believe that here in the next three races, we're going to be inside the top 15 in points. After that, we're going to keep marching our way back to the top 10. ... I honestly believe we're going to be in the top 10 here in the next seven, eight weeks."