‘Ironhead’ Denny Hamlin still thinks he can make the Chase

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In addition to being known more so as “The Intimidator,” the late Dale Earnhardt was also nicknamed “Ironhead,” mainly for his stubborn ways.

Given the beating his body – and more recently his noggin have taken this season – Denny Hamlin could be NASCAR’s new “Ironhead.”

Or at the very least, “Hardhead.”

Hamlin missed four races earlier this year with a compression fracture in his lower back, the result of a wicked wreck at Auto Club Speedway in suburban Los Angeles.

In Sunday’s rain-delayed Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, Hamlin slammed into the Turn 4 wall at high speed and admitted he had his “bell rung.”

But like a durable Timex, Hamlin takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Less than 24 hours after his wreck at Kentucky, he took part in the first of a two-day tire test up the road at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in preparation for the July 28 Brickyard 400.

He was also slated to test Tuesday.

While he may not be invincible, Hamlin is bordering on indestructible. Even with the four-week layoff, he is doing everything in his power to still make this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The odds aren’t looking too good right now, however. Hamlin has nine races to make the Chase, is 281 points behind series leader Jimmie Johnson, and is 104 points out of the top 20 (Ricky Stenhouse Jr. currently holds that spot).

In addition, he has just three top-fives and one other top 10 in his 13 starts to date.

To make the Chase, Hamlin needs to do a number of things:

First, he has to climb into the top 20 (only those in the top 20 are eligible for the two wild card spots that qualify for the Chase). Given that he’s more than 100 points out now, nothing short of a top five or top 10 finish in the next nine races will do.

And that still may not be enough.

Second, he needs to win at least two races in the next nine. If he can pull off three triumphs, all the better, but it’s unlikely he’ll qualify for a wild card spot – even if he does climb into the top 20 before the start of the Chase – unless he starts winning.

Making matters worse, Hamlin has yet to visit victory lane thus far this season.

But there is some optimism to ponder: of the nine tracks upcoming, he’s won at six of them (four times at Pocono; twice each at Richmond, Loudon and Michigan; and once each at Atlanta and Bristol).

Add all those up and 12 of Hamlin’s 22 career Sprint Cup wins have been in the sweet spot of his season – and all upcoming.

Even though he complained of a headache after the Kentucky wreck, Hamlin still feels he can make the Chase – odds be damned.

“(I) definitely have to proceed on,” Hamlin was quoted in the Toyota post-race media transcript. “Really today it was the best performance for us in a while. Hopefully at least something to build off of even though we don’t have a good finish (35th).”

And even though he has so many obstacles to overcome, Hamlin is not giving up on making the Chase.

“We’re just going to try to win races and that’s what my job is for the rest of the year is to try to win and do the best I can for my sponsors and my team,” Hamlin said. “Really the biggest thing I was pushing for was to get my team into the Chase. Had an opportunity owner’s points-wise to get into the Chase and this is obviously another hit.”

And as for his ironhead or hardhead, Hamlin said of Sunday’s crash, “It’s very similar to Kansas of last year during the test day of the race weekend. Flat right side hit, especially, you are picking up a lot of speed off of (turn) four here.

“For me, it didn’t go down slowly like the tire did the first time — this one just blew out solid and quick. Obviously, when I lost steering I hit flat. I would rather hit head-on anywhere than flat up against the wall on these walls.”

If a driver would rather hit a wall head-on, he HAS to have a hard head, for sure.

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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