It’s no secret that Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota driver Denny Hamlin has been down on power compared to some of his rivals in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Yet here we are going into Sunday’s Eliminator Round finale at Phoenix International Raceway with Hamlin tied atop the Chase Grid with Joey Logano, who’s had one of the fastest cars all season long.
Hamlin has finished eighth and 10th in the first two Eliminator races, but it’s been enough to put him where he is thanks in part to setbacks and poor results from the likes of Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Gordon during this ongoing round.
Earlier this week, Hamlin likened the current Chase situation to that of heavy Super Bowl favorites who still must go through the playoffs to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy – what he called the “due process.”
“Some of these fast cars that everyone deemed as favorites are not getting through that due process as cleanly as probably they should or they’ve had bad luck along the way,” Hamlin said.
“So it’s allowing us – the teams that you could say are the underdogs – to kind of pounce on them and kind of just grind our way to hopefully a championship shot at Homestead.”
At the start of the Eliminator Round, there was a seemingly clear line drawn between the favorites – Logano, Gordon, Keselowski, and Harvick – and the underdogs such as Hamlin, JGR teammate Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, and Carl Edwards.
But with one race to go before the Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway, two of those four underdogs are in advance positions with Hamlin up over the cutoff by 13 points and Newman in third at 11 points over the cutoff.
And Kenseth and Edwards are both just one point behind Gordon for the fourth and final advance position.
Hamlin foresees a scenario where three of the Eliminator 8 can make the Championship on points with a Top-10 finish and the rest of the Chasers are fighting for a win that would give them the automatic bid.
He can make the Championship himself with a finish of 11th or better on Sunday. But with all eight Chasers yet to be locked in, he’ll have to push as hard as he can.
“I think as tense as eight drivers are going to be this weekend, cautious is going to make you finish about 17th,” he said. “So I can’t count on that. I think that I have to be aggressive…You especially can’t be lax on restarts – the freight train, stuck on the top line, can’t get down. There’s a lot of factors that track does not allow you to be conservative at.”
“So I go there more worried about can we finish Top-10 on performance than I am, ‘Hey, let’s just kind of back our way into it, let’s just kind of coast to the finish line here.’ I just don’t think that with eight guys still in it, that’s going to be possible.”