Facing Chase elimination, Denny Hamlin calls Sunday’s race the biggest of his career

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In 2010, Denny Hamlin’s battle with Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup title came down to the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hamlin entered that race with a 15-point lead over Johnson, but was unable to hold on as Johnson secured his fifth Sprint Cup championship in succession with a second-place finish (Hamlin finished 14th).

One would figure that race would be the biggest in Hamlin’s career so far.

Instead, the Virginia native says that tomorrow’s Challenger Round finale at Dover International Speedway will have that status.

Hamlin’s fuel probe issues and crash last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway has left him 13th on the Chase Grid, six points behind the 12th-place cutoff.

If he is unable to crack the Top 12 in the standings after tomorrow’s race, he will be eliminated from title contention.

“For us, we don’t control our own destiny unless we win,” Hamlin said after qualifying third yesterday. “I really don’t want to know. Honestly, this will be the hardest race I’ll definitely ever drive for 400 miles. I’m just going to be as aggressive as I can, not put myself in a bad position.

“This is the most important race of my career because it’s the most significant of my career at this point. We got to get the job done and I’m going to do my part to try to make sure we’re successful.”

Dover is not an especially great track for Hamlin. He’s never won at the Monster Mile in his Cup career and his average finish in 17 Cup races there is – well, average – 19.6.

But Hamlin’s got a plan, which includes getting up to the front early to lead a lap. Accomplishing that will give him one bonus point, and considering how tight the advance bubble is, that one point could prove massive in the end.

“If we can lead early, I’d feel a lot better,” he said to USA Today’s Jeff Gluck. “We can take the pressure off as far as trying to do it on pit road. That one point is the first thing to cross off my list once we get that race started.”

Earlier in the spring, Hamlin punched his ticket to the Chase with a victory at Talladega. The rest of his regular season, however, was up-and-down and that has continued into the post-season with a sixth-place run in the Chase opener at Chicagoland followed by the dismal 37th-place showing last weekend at Loudon.

But with his season on the line, he’s looking forward to having a strong Sunday – and moving on to the next round.

“We’re all going to face elimination at some time in our lives,” he also said to Gluck. “It’s how we respond to that adversity that is going to define us.”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”