It’s been eight races since Denny Hamlin last won a race. The last time came in the 15th race of the Sprint Cup schedule at Michigan which at that time was his fifth win within his last 12 starts. He was on top of the NASCAR world and anointed the slayer by many -- including me -- to take down the dragon of four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Winning races is a tough thing to accomplish, especially when considering the likes of the top-three in points like Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton haven‘t even won a race this season. But Hamlin has gone from third in points to sixth with a mix of bad luck, uncompetitive cars, and at least one lackadaisical attitude towards an up coming race. In the last seven races he’s only had one top-five finish, a fifth-place run at his best track of Pocono, mixed in with a couple of mediocre finishes, and three really bad finishes of 24th or worse.
He completely dismissed both road course races as not important and it showed as he finished 34th or worse at Sonoma and last week at Watkins Glen saying the team didn’t do any road course testing like all the other top teams because the races represent only two of the 36. The Sonoma race on June 20 was where his bad luck streak all started and he hasn’t been able to shake the funk.
There are only four races left in the “Race to the Chase” and Hamlin will be one of those drivers. His five wins would put him right at the top of the adjusted standings with Jimmie Johnson were the Chase to begin today, but can a team lay down during a final stretch run and just pick things back up during the playoffs as if momentum means nothing and performance can be turned on like a light switch.
We see teams all the time in other sports resting players in the final games of the regular season to save them for the playoffs, but a cohesion has been broken that is sometimes hard to get back into the rhythm that afforded them the option to rest players. Hamlin didn’t take his road races seriously and it has now carried over into his performance in other races.
The final “Race to the Chase” will be at his home-state track of Richmond where he always run well at and hopefully they can begin to gain some momentum there as they head into the Chase for the Championship 10 race run.
This week at Michigan, Hamlin and his team have chosen to use the 10th place chassis from last years Michigan race rather than the winner from earlier this year, which doesn‘t sound very promising amid their current struggles. Crew chief Mike Ford and the team know a lot more than I do and don’t have to validate their reasons, but it’s similar to two weeks ago at Pocono when they didn’t use the winning chassis there that was 3-for-3 in wins. They did finish fifth in that race, but it makes you wonder why they wouldn’t go in with their absolute best at a track they won at.
This week’s race at Michigan should see a nice mix of top candidates to win that now includes the Ford’s of Roush Racing again, a track that Roush has dominated over the years. Both Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle appear to have a little more under the hood than they had on their last visit to the Brooklyn, Michigan track. Edwards is a two-time Michigan winner and has the tracks best average finish at 6.6 per race. He finished 12th in the early race there this year while Biffle finished ninth. Biffle has an all-time average finish of 12.1 on the track that includes two wins.
Michigan is one of four tracks that Jimmie Johnson has never won at, but he’s been pretty good at crossing off tracks on his bucket list this season with wins at Bristol and Sonoma. He’s been good enough to win on several occasions, but always has a mishap near the end of what looked to be great days. In 17 career starts, he’s had only top-five finishes over his career. This week he’ll be using the chassis he used at Chicago where he finished 25th.
Jeff Gordon has perhaps the best streak of all coming into Michigan having finished runner-up in both races last year and fourth this year. He has been one of the best drivers on all the 1.5 and 2-mile tracks over the last two seasons, but can‘t seem to seal the deal. Look for Gordon to have one of his better opportunities to end his winless streak that dates back to early last season at Texas.
Kurt Busch finished third in the first Michigan race this season and has been tough on all the down force tracks capturing both of his wins this year at Charlotte and Atlanta. He has two career wins at Michigan, but a not-so attractive 19.4 career average finished helped dramatically by starting his Michigan career off with two 43rd place finishes during his rookie year in 2001.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
2) #99 Carl Edwards (18/1)
3) #16 Greg Biffle (18/1)
4) #2 Kurt Busch (10/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)