NASCAR Richmond Notebook: Despite Knee Injury, Denny Hamlin Confident Entering Chase

(NASCAR Wire Service)

Reid Spencer ~ NASCAR Wire Service

Denny Hamlin (Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Denny Hamlin (Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

RICHMOND, Va. – How confident is Denny Hamlin that he’ll advance to the Championship 4 Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

So much so that he hasn’t even contemplated the prospect of surgery to his injured right knee, if he’s eliminated in one of the earlier rounds of the Chase.

“Actually, had not even thought about being eliminated—that’s how confident I am right now that we’re not going to (be). If we do, I don’t know. You want to finish the year strong and I think the way the points all work out you still can move up to fifth or something like that.

“I think, either way, off-season is going to be the best option (for surgery) as long as I can make it that long.”

Hamlin tore the ACL in his right knee playing basketball on Tuesday night. It’s not the first time his ardent pursuit of hoops has interfered with his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career. In the spring of 2010, Hamlin tore the ACL in his left knee and had surgery during an off week but didn’t miss a race.

This time it’s the right knee, which faces less stress with the gas pedal than the left leg does with the brake. With the Chase looming, Hamlin has chosen to postpone surgery and put up with the discomfort outside the car. He showed up in the media center at Richmond International Raceway on Friday as he prepared for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), aided by a single crutch.

In a league basketball game, Hamlin hit a driving layup at the end of regulation play to send the contest into overtime. He tore the ACL in the extra period. But the mishap hasn’t quelled his optimism about his chances for a championship, a confidence that extends to the entire Joe Gibbs Racing roster, which also includes Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and last week’s Darlington winner, Carl Edwards.

“I think our cars are obviously very good right now,” Hamlin said. “And, yeah, there’s no reason why… we all said in January that our goal is to have four cars at Homestead with a chance to win, and I don’t see — except for bad luck — anything that can keep that from happening.”


Three months ago, Clint Bowyer probably would have considered earning a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup spot for lame duck Michael Waltrip Racing a lost cause.

But an uptick in performance by the No. 15 Toyota team, after a crew chief swap began to bear fruit, has Bowyer poised to claim the last of 16 spots in NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.

Bowyer has several routes to the Chase. If he wins Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, he’s in. Two of Bowyer’s eight career victories have come at RIR.

If of the 15 other drivers currently in Chase-eligible positions wins on Saturday, Bowyer makes the Chase if he remains ahead of Aric Almirola in the standings. Bowyer leads Almirola by 29 points entering the final regular-season race, with each point equaling one position on the track.

Even if a driver outside the top 16 happens to take the checkered flag, Bowyer can still qualify for the playoff by moving ahead of one of the drivers in front of him in the standings. Closest within reach are Paul Menard (10 points ahead of Bowyer) and Jeff Gordon (18 points ahead).

“I’m telling you, two months ago I didn’t see this even being a shot, and they (the No. 15 team) really dug deep and worked hard. We switched crew chiefs (before the June race at Michigan), we switched some key components of the organization around and, boom, it took off and we marched our way into the Chase talk.”


When it comes to making the Chase, the odds are heavily in Jeff Gordon’s favor.

If a driver in the top 16 wins on Saturday night, Gordon is locked into the postseason. Even if a driver outside that Chase-eligible group takes the checkered flag, Gordon can secure a Chase spot with a finish of 17th or better, 18th if he leads a lap and 19th if he leads most laps.

In the latter case, however, a catastrophic mechanical failure or an early wreck could knock the four-time champion out of the Chase in his final season as a full-time driver. And Gordon knows it.

“Certainly, there’s no comfort in where we’re at,” Gordon said Friday at Richmond. “It’s so easy for things to go wrong, and you’re just trying to focus on doing everything right.”

Gordon is no stranger to pressure at Richmond, but in the 11 previous editions of the Chase, he has qualified for the playoff 10 times, the lone exception coming in 2005, when the field was limited to the top-10 drivers in the standings.

Nevertheless, he’s wary of drivers in the Federated Auto Parts 400 who can go for broke without consequence.

“I would rather be in this position than like the ones on the outside looking in, but the advantage that they have is that they have nothing to lose and they can just go all out and not even worry about it,” Gordon said.

“For us, we can’t necessarily do that, and sometimes when you get conservative, that’s when you get yourself in trouble. So we’re going to try and balance that out, and I think we are very capable of doing that.”

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