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Denny Hamlin in a difficult position

Party In The Poconos 400 | At Pocono Raceway 1 p.m. Sunday, TNT

- dscott@charlotteobserver.com
Saturday, Jun. 08, 2013

Where Denny Hamlin is starting in Sunday’s Party In The Poconos 400 says as much about the season he is having as anything.

After Friday qualifying was rained out, the starting grid for the race was determined by NASCAR Sprint Cup owners points. That means a 17th spot for Hamlin.

That’s not something Hamlin is used to: he’s been on the pole for the two races (Charlotte and Dover) previous to Pocono.

Hamlin is in a difficult spot as the season heads into the summer months. After missing four races because of a broken back, Hamlin is 26th in the points standings – well out of contention for one of the 12 spots in the Chase for the Championship.

He has 13 races to make up the 122 points he needs to get into the 12-driver Chase.

Equally as important, Hamlin doesn’t have a victory yet, and winning races serves as a tie-breaker to get into the Chase (the final two spots go to the highest ranked drivers in positions 10-20 with the most victories).

“We’re in a hole,” Hamlin said. “This points system is really tough.”

When Hamlin’s Toyota smacked into the wall at California in the season’s fifth race, he was sixth in the standings. But the injury he suffered from the wreck – a compression fracture of the lower back – put him on the shelf for a month.

Hamlin’s spot in the standings dropped steadily in his absence: from sixth to 28th by the time he returned at Talladega. After a 34th-place finish there, he found his form at Darlington (second) and Charlotte (fourth). But another 34th – this time after he hit the wall at Dover – has stunted his momentum as he tries to work his way into the top 20.

“It was frustrating because we were making big strides,” Hamlin said. “Then one bad finish just took us all the way back to where we started again and now with fewer races to do it. We’ve got a huge task.

“But you just can’t miss (four) races and expect to be where you want to be in points.”

Compounding Hamlin’s problems are the number of drivers (13) between him and a spot in the Chase. Perhaps working in his favor – or not – is that just one of them, Tony Stewart, has a victory. Stewart and David Ragan (at 27th one spot behind Hamlin) are the only drivers not in the top 12 with a victory.

So any time a non-Chase driver wins, as Stewart did last week and runner-up Juan Pablo Montoya threatened to – it works against Hamlin’s chances.

“It was a double blow with Tony winning (at Dover),” said Hamlin, who has 22 career victories. “But either way with him and Montoya, it was not looking good for me. We weren’t going to keep those guys from winning – they were going to win at some point. But I’m going to need to get two wins. If I get one, that will put me in the mix. But then I’d have to leap frog those guys on points. With the bad finish I had last week, it’s going to be pretty hard to do.”

Hamlin has had success at Pocono before, winning four times. He also won consecutive races in 2012 at Atlanta and Bristol, two tracks leading up to the cut-off point of the Chase.

“We’ve got some really good ones down the stretch,” Hamlin said. “But I don’t want to have to wait and have three races to win two. That’s pressure for sure.”

Scott: 705-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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