Hamlin Announces Presence with Authority
Just like the way he seemed to sneak up on everyone on Sunday, Denny Hamlin wants to make sure nobody forgets his name when it comes around to discussing championship contenders.
"I feel like over the last six to seven weeks, we've been as good as anyone," Hamlin said. "... One win's not going to put you in [the Chase], necessarily. It might if you're still high up in points. But we know two wins pretty much puts you in.
"From here on out, we know we're one win away from having a Chase spot."
And even though Sunday's win at Michigan International Speedway might not cause anybody in the Cup garage to shake in their boots, it went a long way to prove you can't count Hamlin out.
"We got a win," he said. "That's very uplifting for me, is to win when you don't necessarily have the best car all day, but you have the car good at the end when it really counts."
After finishing 39th at Fontana with engine issues, Hamlin has steadily improved from 21st to ninth in the points. And Hamlin finally cashed in after seemingly coming close to victory in every race since running out of gas on the final lap at Charlotte while chasing Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It was particularly apparent in recent weeks that Hamlin was more than due. At Kansas, he got beat by Brad Keselowski's fuel mileage gamble. At Pocono, he dominated only to shred a tire, which led to brake problems for the rest of the day.
But Michigan was definitely different for the No. 11 team. The weekend started with NASCAR confiscating the team's unapproved oil pan. And Hamlin, the defending race winner, didn't do anything to indicate that he'd be in the thick of things at the drop of the checkered.
"We weren't super fast in practice, we weren't super fast in qualifying," Hamlin said. "We just kind of were average in a lot of different areas. Even during the race, for three-quarters of the race we were average. But we stepped up there at the end."
What Hamlin termed a "magic adjustment" by crew chief Mike Ford turned out to be exactly what his car needed. That, along with some much-needed track position.
"We were so loose all day long, we couldn't do anything to tighten it up," Hamlin said. "We finally hit it about 70 laps to go. We started making our way back forward again.
"We were 15th to 10th all day long and just couldn't get past that point until we got some clean air, a good adjustment, then our car looked like a race-winning car. That's usually some of the best ways to win them, is when people don't expect you and haven't seen you all day."
A fortuitous caution when Earnhardt found the wall on Lap 191 certainly helped matters. Hamlin had been conserving fuel but coming out first after the final two-tire stop allowed him to get by Matt Kenseth on the restart and eventually win by .281 seconds.
"Obviously when that caution came out and it put us in the top five, then I think it was [time] for us to say, 'OK, now let's see what our car's got,' " Hamlin said. "We started making ground [with] about 100 laps to go and were running top-five times.
"That put an equalizer right there, as soon as that caution flag flew, to let us see what kind of car we had. Obviously, the last couple runs, we were able to hang right there at the front. It's just things worked out for us today."
So after "sneaking up on everyone," Hamlin wouldn't mind getting on a bit of roll, much like he did last year when he won eight times and was in the points lead heading into Homestead.
And if he does, watch out.
"My goal is still to get in the top five in points," Hamlin said. "If I wouldn't have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we really could be possibly fighting for trying to lead the points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind, it's going to be tough to do that.
"My realistic goal is top five in points, [which means I] don't have to worry about any kind of wild cards once we get to Richmond."