Moments after running out of gas on the final lap of last week’s race at Chicagoland Speedway, Hamlin used social media to make this guarantee: “This is 1 week of 10. We will win next week.”
Racers rarely make such predictions, especially since success depends so much on outside factors, including the other 42 drivers he’s vowed to beat today at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
And while Hamlin has back-peddled a bit, saying his promise was more about confidence with his Joe Gibbs Race team and the No. 11 Toyota than an absolute victory, his comment continued to resonate around the garage area all weekend.
“Maybe he knows something we don’t know,” said Jeff Gordon, who will start from the pole. “I certainly don’t like to put myself in that position, but those guys have been good this year and we all expect them to be a real threat for the championship. It wasn’t the best way for them to get started, showed that everybody has weaknesses and makes mistakes. I expect him to be strong this weekend and several others in this Chase.”
Hamlin had the fastest car in Friday’s practice session and again on Saturday, and that certainly made an impression.
“I feel like I can go win each and every one of them,” Hamlin said. “Really it’s nothing more than that. It was really meant to be nothing more than just, ‘Hey, we’ll get them next week. We’ll win it next week.’ People were just taking it a little further than that. But I’m racing, doing the best I can, and that’s all I’m going to do.”
Unlike other athletes who’ve called their shots, like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield fence or Muhammad Ali predicting his winning round, Hamlin has to rely on others to make his bold prophecy come true.
If not for mistakes by his crew, Hamlin’s promise would have even more traction. He ran out of gas last week while running in the top five because the team failed to fill the tank. And in Friday’s qualifying session, his team put the wrong air pressure in his tires, and it led to a 32nd-place starting spot.
At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore Hamlin’s record at the one-mile oval. He’s got one victory, six top-five finishes and nine top-nine finishes in 13 career starts. He’s also finished 3,866 of 3,868 possible laps.
“That obviously gives you a ton of confidence,” Hamlin said. “By the stats, it’s one of my best race tracks. I know that everyone talks about all the wins they could have, but there are a handfuls of wins I feel like we should have that we don’t for simple, little mistakes.”
Gordon, who started the Chase for the Championship a week ago with a crash, is in good shape to make up lost ground. His lap of 134.911 mph was good enough to put his No. 24 Chevrolet on the pole.
Kyle Busch will be second, followed by Tony Stewart in third, Brian Vickers in fourth, Carl Edwards in fifth, Kasey Kahne in sixth, Paul Menard in seventh and Ryan Newman in eighth.
Despite his speed, Hamlin still faces difficult odds. There have been just three winners Ð Rusty Wallace in 1993, Jeff Burton in 1999 and Kurt Busch in 2004 Ð who’ve started 32nd or worse at New Hampshire and won.
Nonetheless, Hamlin’s not ready to back off his promise.
“Given our history here, given how we ran the first practice and hopefully how we run (in Saturday’s final practice), I’ll expect to win,” he said.
Others aren’t so sure.
“I guess he enjoys pressure, because that certainly places a lot of pressure on you,” Clint Bowyer said. “Who knows? I’m going to call his bluff.”
Tony Stewart guaranteed a victory Ð and the championship Ð at the season-finale last year at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, and he lived up to that promise. But even he wonders if it’s a good move for Hamlin to make himself such a target.
“He wouldn’t say that if he didn’t have the confidence to go with it,” Stewart said. “He’s not a guy that just, he doesn’t just say stuff like that unless he feels confident about it. We will see what happens. There are 42 other guys that are going to try to keep him from doing that this weekend though.”