CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Denny Hamlin had three wins at this point last season and was clearly the strongest challenger to Jimmie Johnson’s title.
Joey Logano was inconsistent, but showing enough improvement that everyone believed he was headed toward Victory Lane. When the season ended, Hamlin was an eight-time winner who had nearly ended Johnson’s five-year reign and Logano was predicted to become a legitimate contender for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Neither is driving up to expectations.
Nobody, though, is panicking.
“There’s no doubt we’ll be in the Chase,” said Hamlin, who goes to Kansas Speedway this weekend inside the top 12 for the first time since the third week of the season.
“It’s just never giving up, man,” said Logano, who grabbed a season-best third-place finish Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Their disappointing starts to the season have thrust both drivers into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. An unconfirmed report last month said Joe Gibbs Racing was on the verge of swapping Logano crew chief Greg Zipadelli with Hamlin crew chief Mike Ford, and even though team president J.D. Gibbs strongly denied that had ever been discussed, the whispers have lingered.
It didn’t matter that Hamlin responded with finishes of second and sixth immediately after the rumor surfaced, as soon as he logged a 16th at Dover — a track that has consistently caused him fits and where his average finish is 20.9 — people again began clamoring for Ford’s head.
It didn’t help, either, when Logano and Zipadelli bickered over their in-car radio the next week after Logano failed to race his way into the All-Star race.
Both drivers continue to insist everything is just fine.
“We’re a couple Yankees from up North, and we yell and scream at each other,” said Logano, who like Zipadelli hails from Connecticut.
“That’s just how we communicate. I think that’s how everyone communicates that’s from up there. So that’s not a big deal. I just saw both of us getting frustrated, and it is what it is. It works out all right. We don’t hold grudges. We just keep going.”
And Hamlin, who has been with Ford all six years in the Sprint Cup Series, can’t imagine working with anyone but his current crew chief.
“Everybody thinks that Chad Knaus is the best crew chief in the garage, if you had him move over to the 11 car, I guarantee you we run worse for a long while,” Hamlin said. “It just works for me right now. We have the same personality. He knows how I work; I know how he works.
“So I just don’t think that anybody is going to help me right now. I’ve got to work through all that stuff myself.”
Both drivers are trying to do exactly that right now.
Hamlin was decent during the Coca-Cola 600 despite engine issues that plagued him over the course of NASCAR’s longest race of the season. But he was still fourth as the race closed in on the final 100 laps, and Ford called him to pit road to change the carburetor and correct the engine issue once and for all.
It dropped Hamlin to 27th on the board, but he worked his way back into the top five in the closing laps, only to run out of gas and finish 10th.
Logano, meanwhile, was in danger of going a lap down early in the race, but through pointed and direct conversation with Zipadelli they were able to make enough adjustments on his Toyota to work their way through the field.
His final finish was aided by the many cars in front of him that ran out of gas, but Logano had still hung in for what would have been a top-10 finish regardless of other drivers’ fuel issues.
Although Logano is currently 23rd in points and Charlotte was just his second top-10 finish of the season, he and Zipadelli both know they’ve run better than what the statistics show. A combination of driver mistakes and really bad luck put them in their current hole, and a few good finishes might be all it takes to turn the season around.
“I’m just happy to get (a good finish at Charlotte), as many as we got taken away this year,” Logano said. “Hopefully, this will put some momentum on our side and we have some good race tracks coming up for us.”
So does Hamlin, including next week’s race at Pocono, where he’s a four-time winner. He’s not taking it for granted that his turnaround will continue at Pocono, but he’s excited about the stretch of summer racing that’s ahead.
“We have great tracks (coming up), but it’s not only that, it’s hot race tracks,” he said. “I need hot race tracks to really perform well. That suits my style. That’s the way I’ve always raced. … Quick, fast everywhere we go setting track records is not my style of driving.
“I’m more of a smooth driver who takes care of his equipment for the end. That doesn’t get rewarded when we’re setting track records everywhere.”
Hamlin also praised team owner Joe Gibbs, who he said is working tirelessly on making the improvements Hamlin and Logano need to get on pace with teammate Kyle Busch.
Busch has been immune from the struggles the other two have had, and he’s got two Sprint Cup wins already this season.
“Kyle is running really well with everything right now, so that’s good from that standpoint,” Hamlin said. “But we still have issues within the team that we need to continue to work through. And we continue to work on them. That’s the good part, is Joe Gibbs, if I bring an issue up to him, he’s working overtime.
“He works until 9 o’clock at night to make sure he resolves whatever issue I have.”