Denny Hamlin expects desperate things to take place Sunday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway with the final spot in the championship race on the line.
“To what extent, I’m really not sure,” said Hamlin. “I think it just depends on the players that are in the game at that point and how late in the race it is.”
Whether Hamlin is the driver in that position is to be determined. He knows he has 19 points to overcome if he wants to advance, which is not necessarily a must-win situation. But after the first Can-Am 500 practice session Friday morning, in which Hamlin was third-fastest, he believes he has a car capable of doing that.
Hamlin has a lone Phoenix win, in the spring of 2012.
“I think the interesting things that could play out is teammates staying out or pitting – things like that – that possibly could put you behind. Who knows how it’s going to turn out? Honestly, there’s four of us that need to feel like we need to win to get in,” Hamlin said.
“Until the first half of the race plays out, we don’t know what we need to do. I think we’ll have a better idea after those first two stages. But then I think it’s what strategy do you take for that final restart – do you stay out or do you pit? It definitely has the potential to be pretty crazy on restarts knowing that you have some agendas out there that will be a win or nothing.”
Brad Keselowski is the driver Hamlin and the three others on the bottom half of the playoff leaderboard are shooting for. In mentioning the first two stages, Hamlin knows he can make up 20 points before the checkered flag if he were to win those two stages.
Realistically then, Hamlin can advance on points, as Toyota stablemate Martin Truex Jr was able to do last weekend. With only three stage wins to his credit, Hamlin has acknowledged he spent much of the year giving points up.
“I hate it for ourselves because we’re performing at a high level through the playoffs and we may not get rewarded for it, but it’s meant to be a win-and-you’re-in-type format,” said Hamlin. “We know that [for] in the future, next year, whatever. Not that we could have really done anything more throughout the regular season, but it’s so much more important to win races and get those bonus points.
“Trust me, I’d like to have my Darlington win back, as well, because that was points left on the table.”
Joe Gibbs Racing had its Southern 500 win encumbered because the rear suspension of Hamlin’s car was ruled out of compliance. The penalty took away the five bonus points accompanying a win, points that would have carried through with Hamlin in the playoffs.
Those points would not have changed Hamlin’s position coming this weekend. But he certainly would have liked to be a little closer to the competition and not be thinking about the crazy things he may have to do to race for a championship.
“We come and try to win,” Hamlin said. “We’ll just throughout the next two days just try to make our car faster and faster and if we can do that, then it’ll take care of itself.”
The No. 11 team has not been in the championship race at Homestead since being involved in the inaugural Championship 4 in 2014.