CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Denny Hamlin said he would win at New Hampshire and did just that, scoring an important victory in his quest to win his first NASCAR championship.
For his next act, Hamlin must prove he’s a legitimate title contender by overcoming his disdain for Dover.
Hamlin openly despises the 1-mile concrete oval so much that every armchair psychologist out there is convinced his problems at Dover are self-inflicted. He points to his past performances there — he’s got an average finish of 20.5 in 13 career starts — as proof the place gives him fits.
But there must be a correlation in how poorly he runs and the bad attitude he takes into Delaware twice a year. Hamlin has brought up his dislike for Dover unprovoked several times over the last six weeks, including stopping himself mid-sentence while assessing his title chances after his win at Bristol.
“I think that the Chase, other than Dover — I’m so bad there, I hate that track ... other than Dover, I feel that I can win at any race track that we go to,” he said.
Asked about it earlier this month, Hamlin insisted nothing will ever change about his feelings for Dover, where he finished 36th or worse during a four-race stretch from 2007 to 2009.
“I just don’t like the place. I’m not comfortable there,” he said. “I go there believing if we have a great day, we’ll run somewhere around 15th.”
Well, 15th isn’t going to get it done in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which shifts to Dover this weekend for the third of 10 races. After running out of fuel in the opener at Chicago, Hamlin took to Twitter to guarantee he’d bounce back at New Hampshire with a victory.
He did that on Sunday, grabbing his series-best fifth win of the season, and it moved him to third in the Chase standings. He is seven points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, who is determined to reclaim the title after Tony Stewart snapped his five-year reign last season.
Johnson, by the way, loves Dover.
He is a seven-time winner at Dover, and has 15 top-10 finishes in 21 career starts. Johnson also won there earlier this year, leading 289 of the 400 laps to remind everyone there’s nobody better in NASCAR at Dover right now.
So it’s in Hamlin’s best interest to immediately get over his issues with Dover or risk losing a lot of ground to Johnson in this championship race.
“I’m going to be optimistic when I go there,” Hamlin said. “I just have to have an open mind when I get out there for the first green flag run and have faith that I can do it. You know, people have their Achilles heel, and for me, in the course of my career, Dover has been it. I have won in Nationwide there somehow — everyone else must have wrecked or something, I don’t know. But I just have to figure out what it takes in Cup.”
Crew chief Darian Grubb will play a pivotal role this weekend.
Grubb lived through this very situation a year ago with Stewart, who also doesn’t love Dover. He’d won the first two races of the Chase last year, then struggled so much when he hit the track at Dover last September that he insisted he wasn’t a title contender.
It ended up being the mulligan of the Chase for Stewart, who qualified 28th and finished two laps down in 25th. Stewart won three more races during the Chase to win the championship, so that poor run at Dover didn’t hurt him.
Grubb has been working with Hamlin for weeks on finding a setup that will make the driver comfortable. He chose to bring to Dover the same car Hamlin drove at Richmond, where he led for 202 laps.
It’s made something click with Hamlin, who sounds a little more confident about his chances. He’s now recalling the four top-10s he has at Dover, and the pair of fourth-place finishes.
“I have had some races where I was pretty competitive,” he said, adding if Grubb can find one thing that makes the driver comfortable in the car “we are going to treat it just like any other weekend that we have a great shot to win.”
He doesn’t have to win to make this coming weekend a success. Hamlin just has to go to Dover with the right mindset so that he doesn’t throw it away before he’s even hit the track. Grubb indicated Monday that’s the goal with a tweet that seemingly poked fun at Hamlin’s “we will win” Twitter post last week about New Hampshire.
“Next week (at)Dover, WE WILL.... try as hard as we can like every other week,” he wrote.