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Hamlin needs rebound race at New Hampshire
LOUDON, N.H. (AP) - One and done? Title hopes up in smoke? For the Chase drivers who ran out of gas or good luck in the playoff opener, they have kept the faith that their championship pursuits aren’t spoiled because of a bad start.
But it doesn’t help.
Denny Hamlin, inconsistent all season, is stuck in 12th place and already 41 points behind leader Kevin Harvick. He struggled all day in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship kickoff last week at Chicagoland and staggered to a 31st-place finish.
Matt Kenseth (10th) and Jeff Gordon (11th) are ahead of him in the standings, yet Gordon is only 25 points out of first. Not an enviable position, but certainly no reason to panic _ not with nine races left starting Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Hamlin, though, could find his championship push extinguished with a similar poor run in the No. 11 Toyota. He couldn’t find a spark Friday and qualified 28th, the worst start among the 12 Chase drivers.
“We’re struggling right now just to get consistency and I can’t pinpoint one particular place where we need to work,” Hamlin said. “Someone asked me where we lacked and I don’t know. It’s something different every two to three weeks. It’s painful at this moment.”
A year ago, Hamlin was on the brink of his first championship heading into the finale at Homestead. Hamlin entered the race leading the standings only to spin out and slide through the grass to derail his effort and pave the way for Jimmie Johnson to win the title for a fifth straight season.
For Hamlin, it wasn’t just a bitter end to the season _ it seemed to set the tone for this one.
He had only one top 10 in the first eight races. While he did get hot late, he had only one victory and qualified for the Chase with a wild card.
“I don’t think anyone has huge expectations for us this Chase,” Hamlin said. “I personally do and still do. I think that we’ve really underachieved quite a bit, so you get frustrated.”
Kenseth and Gordon certainly understand Hamlin’s frustrations. Unlike Hamlin, Gordon and Kenseth had two of the cars to beat last week until they ran out of gas in a finish decided on fuel mileage. Because Gordon and Kenseth have been so steady all season (each driver has multiple victories), it’s easier to envision their cars getting back on a roll Sunday and making a charge up the standings.
Kenseth said it’s too early in the Chase to worry about one tough finish.
“It’s not like there is a Hail Mary you can throw,” he said, “but it’s not time to throw it anyway.”
By Emily Miller
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