DOVER, Del. — A week after guaranteeing and delivering on a promise to win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin now faces the stark reality of the Dover International Speedway.
There will be no such assurances this week for the AAA 400. Instead, he’d be happy with getting away from the one-mile oval with a top-10 finish.
“I think a lot of it is because it’s concrete. I think the concrete surface itself just throws me a loop and I don’t have a good feel in my (rear) for concrete,” he said. “I don’t know. We got better at Bristol, so hopefully what we learned there will transfer over to Dover.”
Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have started the Chase for the Championship as the biggest threats to Jimmie Johnson’s quest for a sixth title in seven years. Johnson has a one-point lead in the playoffs heading into his favorite track in the Chase, while Keselowski is one-point behind and Hamlin is seven back for a track they dread the most.
“I’m just realistic,” Keselowski said. “I can pump myself and beat my chest all I want going into a race track, but when you haven’t had success there that means you don’t know what feel you are looking for. The good news is we’re going there with a complete new package that Darian (Grubb, crew chief) thinks will make me more comfortable and we’ll see how it goes. We know at worst we’ve going to be 18th, two laps down. That’s where we usually are.”
Hamlin made the boastful promise before last week’s race because New Hampshire was his best track in the playoffs. He backed it up by leading 193 of the final 207 and beating Johnson by more than 100 yards.
Now it’s Johnson’s turn to be the prohibitive favorite. He’s won seven times at Dover, including three times in the Chase. He also won the race there on June 3.
“Yeah, so far it’s been a great track for us,” Johnson said. “The thing there that is tough and we have been very fortunate to miss it, if something happens we know it’s a self-cleaning track and you get torn up pretty bad because you are going so fast. If we can run up front and kind of control the race and control who we are racing around I feel we can make up a lot or hopefully distance ourselves.
“I want to come out of (Dover) with the points lead, and hopefully we can distance ourselves from the guys.”
Six of the 12 drivers in the Chase haven’t won at Dover, including Hamlin and Keselowski. In fact, Hamlin hasn’t finished better than 16th in his last three starts there and his career average finish is 20.5 Keselowski hasn’t finished better than 12th in all five of his career starts there.
“You know, people have their Achilles heel, and for me, in the course of my career, Dover has been it,” Hamlin said. “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.”
Keselowski will take a different approach for Sunday’s race by not dwelling on the past. By re-setting his mind, he hopes to change his luck there.
“I think it’s really easy to allow yourself to get psyched-out by looking at previous stats or even practice and qualifying stats and it doesn’t seem to be the case,” he said. “It’s really hard to give a great answer on who’s going to be good where. Our previous history has shown that we have not run well at Dover but I’m optimistic that can change.”
But like Hamlin, he’s not making any promises.