When NASCAR pulls in to Pennsylvania, there will be one driver who will no doubt be grinning ear to ear at the sight of Pocono’s “Tricky Triangle.” Denny Hamlin, whose Chase hopes hang by a thread after a 34th place finish at Dover, might even kiss the asphalt as he arrives.
Among active drivers, the 2010 season runner-up has the highest driver rating at 115.1. That’s easily better Jimmie Johnson’s stellar second-place rating of 107.6 and Kurt Busch’s 103.7 or Jeff Gordon’s 100.9. Hamlin has four victories at Pocono, putting him right alongside the late Tim Richmond for mastery of the complex two (and a half) mile triangular track.
Summer can’t get here fast enough for Hamlin, who sits 74 south of 20th place Ryan Newman in his bid for a wild card berth. If you’ll recall, in that strong 2010 campaign, the June Pocono race was part of a magical run in which the Chesterfield, Virginia native won three races in six starts. Those wins, plus another one of those hot streaks is going to be what Hamlin needs to leapfrog into the top 20 and grab one of two wild cards available to drivers between 11th and 20th on the seasonal leaderboard.
Along with a mad streak of his own, Hamlin could also use a little help for his quest for the Chase. Pocono portends good fortune for Hamlin on that score, as success had eluded a number of contending drivers, offering and opportunity for the 32-year old to narrow the gap. While he’s coming off a win and he’s had Pocono success, Tony Stewart would be the first to tell you the 14 crew’s work has just begun. Reigning champion Brad Keselowski keeps taking hits for violations on his car, denting his hopes. Toyota drivers (of course, that includes Hamlin as well) have got to be feeling a bit skittish with the continuing issues related to the TRD engines.
While he has a ton of ground to cover, don’t count Denny out just yet. With 22 trips to victory lane, he’s already done that. Coming up, not only does Hamlin have Pocono to look forward to, he’s also been solid at Michigan, brilliant at Kentucky, stout at New Hampshire, and in that all-important race in Richmond? Hamlin’s almost as good there as he is Pocono.
Hamlin has nothing to lose. Few expect him to make it, so why not go for broke, go all out for wins, and race aggressively. One more day like last Sunday, and his hopes may be about be toast, so any aggressiveness must be tempered with some picking of one’s battles.
One lingering question in the background is his back. As has been suggested by other scribes, Hamlin might do well to take some additional time off should he find himself on the outside looking with not shot of making it. When that day comes, if it does, you know everyone will let him now, and no career is worth a messed up back.
In the meanwhile, Hamlin will be hunkering down with some of the best minds in the racing business at his side with crew chief Darian Grubb and Joe and J.D. Gibbs among others. Racing at Pocono might not be the thrill a minute that a Bristol is, but a story line will certainly keep us interested.
Good luck Denny.