Hamlin emerging as a Chase contender after Michigan win

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Brooklyn, MI (Sports Network) - Denny Hamlin has offered a word of caution to his fellow competitors. He's learned how to "sneak up on everyone" to win races. Now, Hamlin's hoping to do the same in his attempt to make the field for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

Hamlin by no means had the dominant car over the weekend at Michigan International Speedway. But somehow he managed to pull off a win in the 400- mile Sprint Cup Series race here.

If it weren't for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s misfortune in the closing laps, Hamlin might not have picked up his first win of the season. Earnhardt blew a tire and hit the wall with fewer than 10 laps remaining. Hamlin was running in the top-five before the final caution, but during the last round of stops, he beat the front-runners out of the pits and claimed the lead for the first time with eight laps to go.

Matt Kenseth challenged Hamlin for the win during the five-lap shootout to the finish, but Kenseth came up 0.3 seconds short of doing so.

"We weren't super fast in practice, and we weren't super fast in qualifying; we were just kind of average in a lot of different areas," Hamlin said. "For three-quarters of the race we were average. But we stepped up there at the end.

"When that caution came out and it put us in the top five, then I think it was medicine for us to say, 'Okay, now let's see what our car's got.' We started making ground about 100 laps to go and were running top-five at the time. 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 how things worked out for us [Sunday]."

The weekend at Michigan did not start off on the right note for Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. During Friday's opening-day inspection, NASCAR officials found unapproved oil pans on JGR's No.11 (Hamlin), No.18 (Busch) and No.20 (Logano) cars. All three teams changed the pans in time for the first practice session. They could be facing penalties from NASCAR this week.

Can Denny Hamlin keep the momentum going for the final 11 races during the regular season?
But that didn't seem to distract Hamlin's team on Sunday.

"I think it speaks volumes to the experience and the resilience of this 11 car that you can start the weekend off with a down note and put that behind you, and make sure that it doesn't affect what's getting ready to happen," Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, said. "[Sunday] is just proof of that. We turned a negative for us to a positive, and we'll see where it goes from there."

Hamlin recorded his 17th victory in NASCAR's premier series, but it was his first win since last November at Texas (16 races ago). He won a series-high eight races during the 2010 season.

"For me, if I go about eight weeks without winning, I'm wondering what the heck is going on," he said.

With the win, Hamlin moved into a tie with Clint Bowyer for ninth place in the point standings. Hamlin and Bowyer are only one point ahead of 11th-place Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon is currently 12th in the standings, but has won two races already this season.

The top-10 drivers in points after the September 10 race at Richmond will qualify for the Chase. Positions 11 and 12 in the playoff field will go to those who have the most wins, provided they are in the top-20 at the time.

Earlier this year, it looked as though Hamlin's sixth full season in Sprint Cup could be his worst one. With engine woes plaguing his No.11 Joe Gibbs Racing team, Hamlin fell as low as 21st in points following the March 27 race in Fontana, CA. He has rebounded nicely since then.

Can Hamlin keep the momentum going for the final 11 races during the regular season?

"My realistic goal is top five in points, so we don't have to worry about any kind of wild cards once we get to Richmond," Hamlin said. "If I wouldn't have dug us such a big hole at the beginning of the year, we could be possibly fighting for the lead in points going into the Chase. But we just started so far behind, and it's going to be tough to do that."

Hamlin has qualified for the Chase each year since his 2006 rookie-of-the-year season. With the way he's running now, Hamlin is well on his way to making his sixth straight appearance in the playoffs.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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