LOUDON, N.H. (AP) – While Denny Hamlin has avoided the dreaded sophomore jinx, he’s not satisfied with being second in the NASCAR Nextel Cup season points going into today’s race at New Hampshire International Speedway.
Last year’s top rookie wants to win races – the sooner, the better.
It’s not for the glory, though. Hamlin is thinking championship, and winning races could be the key to that, thanks to NASCAR’s new Chase for the Championship format.
In its fourth year, the Chase – a 10-race playoff for the title among the best drivers in the stock car series – has changed two key elements.
NASCAR expanded the 2007 Chase from 10 to 12 drivers and added a seeding process in which the eligible drivers will start the postseason with a base of 5,000 points plus 10 additional points for each victory during the 26-race regular season. Eight of the current top 12 have won races this season, including four apiece by points leader Jeff Gordon and fifth-place Jimmie Johnson.
Despite his exalted spot in the points, Hamlin has yet to win in 2007, meaning that if the Chase began with Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 300, he would find himself ninth in the points.
Not even the 100-point penalties NASCAR levied against Hendrick Motorsports teammates Gordon and Johnson earlier this week in the wake of their cars failing inspection in Sonoma would make a significant difference under the new format.
“If we were to go into the Chase right now, we’d be 40 behind,” Hamlin said. “We feel like we’re running well enough, we could make that up if we run the same way that we have all year. We would just like to start closer to those guys.”
The race on Sunday, the 17th of the season, should provide Hamlin a good chance to narrow the gap.
The flat, 1.058-mile New Hampshire oval is very similar to the Phoenix track, where Hamlin appeared to have the fastest car through most of the race in April.
Hamlin led 70 laps and was out front when he was caught speeding entering pit road on lap 99 of 312. He was sent to the rear of the longest line, dropping him to 30th. But Hamlin charged back to finish third.
Gordon won that race and Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and a two-time Cup champion, finished second despite leading a race-high 132 laps.
But that’s the way it has gone for the Gibbs drivers this season – close, but no trophy.
“The first thing you have to do is make the Chase,” said Stewart, who barely missed the postseason last year but is currently is sixth in the points. “You always want to win, but this year wins mean more.”
“Yeah, it’s frustrating to come close and not win. We’ve led a lot of laps and we should have won races, but that isn’t good enough. Top-10s or top-five finishes aren’t even good enough any more.”
Sunday’s race will be the eighth of 16 events this season for NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow, which also competed in Phoenix. The Hendrick drivers have dominated the COT races, with Gordon winning two, Johnson two and teammate Kyle Busch one.
Despite his strong showing in that race, Hamlin was openly critical of the COT after the Phoenix race. But his opinion on the car that will race the entire 2008 Cup season is slowly changing.
“It is still a little early to tell how successful this whole thing is going to be,” Hamlin said. “I think, for the most part, it is evolving better than I thought it would. …
“I think it is really starting to speed up. You are starting to see the other teams starting to catch up a little bit. I think that is going to make, obviously, better racing.”
As for his season thus far, Hamlin laments lost opportunities, like Phoenix.
“We definitely should be even with those other guys right now, but that doesn’t matter,” Hamlin said. “We’re going to start a little behind (in the Chase) unless we start rolling off some wins. Even if we don’t, though, I think we can still overcome it.”
“We feel like we’re sitting in a decent spot right now when it comes to the Chase. To sit there and say we’re going to be happy with a top-three-or-four finish, we are. But not as much as we would a win, obviously, but for a lot different reasons than just a victory.”