‘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.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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