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.”