FONTANA, Calif. – Denny Hamlin surprised himself winning the pole for Sunday’s Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway.
Could he pull an even bigger one by winning his first Sprint Cup Series championship?
He and his team certainly think that’s possible, but to them it wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise.
“Up front in the Chase are our worst tracks – Dover and Kansas – and we got out of there and we can still see the front. I truly believe the further we go in this, the better we’ll run,” said Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford.
“I think we have a car people need to look at to beat (in the race). I think this No. 11 car is tougher than a lot of people are thinking.”
Hamlin is certainly well within striking distance, sixth in points and 99 behind leader Mark Martin with seven of the 10 races remaining in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Hamlin already has two wins this season – at Pocono and Richmond, Va. – and in the last 15 races, he has finished ahead of Jimmie Johnson – who’s won the last three titles – 10 times.
“Obviously, people look at (Johnson). We’re competing and people aren’t really looking at us, and right now I don’t think there is anyone else in the Chase ... who is any stronger,” Ford said.
Considering Hamlin’s worst tracks are behind him and his strong performance thus far at Auto Club Speedway, where he has three top-10 finishes in seven previous starts, Ford has a viable argument.
Hamlin has won at New Hampshire and this year finished second in the first race in the Chase there. Hamlin was 22nd at Dover, but given his finishes of 36th or worse in previous stops there, that was a dramatic improvement.
At Kansas, Hamlin had never finished better than 11th but came out of last weekend’s race with a fifth-place showing.
Sunday, he’ll start from the pole at a track where he struggled early in his Cup career. But he has finished sixth and third, respectively, in his last two races.
“I typically have to come from the back here at this race track. What advantage I’ll have is to get a better gauge of my car early in the race,” Hamlin said.
“By starting up front, you get more adjustments in to try to fine-tune your car and I think a lot of times what’s why you see the guys that qualify up front will finish up front.
“They get more opportunities to refine their car for the dash at the end.”
Much like Hamlin’s planned dash to the end of the Chase.
In the six races left after this weekend, Hamlin is strong at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and even Homestead, Fla. He has three top-10s in eight starts at Charlotte and Talladega is likely a toss-up.
“I’m looking at these last races and I’m thinking we have a pretty dang good shot (at the championship),” Ford said.
“I know what we have on the inside and I know where we’re at as a team, and I’d hate to think anybody was any stronger. So, I feel pretty good about it.”