CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The first sign this wasn’t going to be Denny Hamlin’s year probably came before the season even started.
A bizarre mechanical issue sent Hamlin’s car sliding through the infield grass as he was getting up to speed on his qualifying lap for the Daytona 500. It was the first in a series of broken parts, bad luck and botched opportunities that have made this the worst season of his six-year career.
But the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship was supposed to be a fresh start.
Not so much.
Hamlin’s championship pursuit got off to a disastrous start Monday at Chicagoland Speedway, where he limped to a 31st-place finish. On a day when several title contenders were stuck with poor finishes after running out of gas on the final lap, nobody had it worse than Hamlin.
He went into Chicago ranked last in the 12-driver field and left in the same spot. But he began the day only 12 points behind the leaders and now he’s a whopping 41 points behind Kevin Harvick.
Hamlin knew the gravity of his situation when he left the track, and he uncharacteristically declined to comment because, really, what was there for him to say?
A day later, he tried to put a positive spin on the road ahead.
“Obviously, not the way we wanted to start the Chase,” Hamlin said Tuesday in quotes provided by his public relations representative.
“But we’re going to do our best to dig out of this. We still have some good tracks for us coming up, and you never know what can happen.”
Indeed, he does.
Hamlin shifts to Round 2 of the Chase this weekend at New Hampshire, where his 7.2 average finish is best among active drivers. Also on the schedule is Martinsville (four wins), Texas (swept last season) and Homestead (2009 victory).
The turnaround time this week is tight, but Hamlin needs to pick himself up and take the first steps toward climbing out of this huge hole. He can do it, too, if he follows the very words he spoke last week, before the Chase began.
“I know that everything that goes on from this point forward is a bonus for us,” he said. “Normally, we would not have a shot at a championship. We were given, for being mediocre for most of the season, a chance to win the championship in the last 10. That’s a gift to me.
“I have nothing to lose. I’m 12th in points. I’m not going backwards. I’m going forwards.”
There isn’t anywhere for Hamlin to go but up, and he can’t do that unless he believes it’s possible. He’s the guy who won eight races last season and nearly stopped Jimmie Johnson from collecting a fifth consecutive title, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to turn this around.
Except, of course, that every attempt to step it up this season has failed.
The many bumps for the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team have ranged from engine problems, accidents, a confiscated oil pan and lug nuts that lacked the proper amount of glue. With a month to go in the regular season, Hamlin had dropped to 14th in the standings — his lowest ranking that late on the schedule of his entire career — and he had to claw his way into the final wild-card berth for t he Chase.
Then came Monday at Chicago, where nothing seemed to go right.
Hamlin struggled with the balance of his Toyota in the early part of the race, then had to make an unscheduled pit stop for what he believed was a loose wheel. The rest of the day was a maddening push of trying to get back on the lead lap, and Hamlin never could quite get himself in position. Then, in a frantic race with other drivers trying to get in position for NASCAR’s free pass back onto the lead lap, Hamlin made contact with another car, causing a flat tire.
“It was just a disappointing day for us,” he said.
It’s going to be really difficult to win the championship this year against Johnson, Harvick, Jeff Gordon and teammate Kyle Busch.
But Tony Stewart proved Monday that everybody is a title contender when, days after crossing himself off a list of viable threats to win the championship, he snapped a 32-race winless streak with his victory at Chicago.
That’s what it will take for Hamlin, who must be perfect the next nine weeks to have any chance at all. That might be too much to ask, but he’s got to believe anything is possible from here on out.
If he fails, he always can look back at that ill-fated qualifying lap at Daytona as a warning sign that this was going to be miserable year. Chances are, though, he’ll sleep better if he can honestly say he went down fighting to overcome everything that got in his way.