Hamlin hanging around in Chase

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FONTANA, Calif. --- It's not easy to find Denny Hamlin's car in the garage area at Auto Club Speedway. Instead of working inside one of the stalls, crew chief Mike Ford decided to work in the parking lot near the back fence.

Much like the rest of Joe Gibbs Racing, Hamlin's work has gone relatively unnoticed in the past three months. It's been easy to focus on Hendrick Motorsports, particularly Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson, during the Chase for the Championship, but Hamlin quietly has kept the Gibbs team in the mix.

"You know I keep hearing for the last three or four months that we've dropped off," Ford said while preparing for today's Pepsi 500. "I don't understand that. We've been as good as anyone -- maybe better."

With four teams, Hendrick has dominated most of the season, including the first three races in the Chase. As a group, they have 11 wins. Hendrick also builds cars and engines for Stewart-Haas Racing, which has another four victories.

Gibbs has seven wins with three teams. Hamlin, however, is the only driver of the group in the playoffs.

Hamlin started the season slow with five finishes outside the top 20 in the first five months. In the 15 races since, he has nine top-fives, including two wins.

Hamlin's late-season run should continue today (3:30 p.m., ABC-Ch. 6). Hamlin will start on the pole after winning time trials with a lap of 183.870 mph.

"We've (the 11 car) has run extremely well over the last probably three months," Hamlin said. "The 18 (Busch), obviously his performance has dropped quite a bit. The 20 (rookie Joey Logano) has kind of hit a plateau. It seemed like he was making big gains and the next thing you know he's kind of plateaued."

Hamlin, who is in sixth place in the playoffs, 99 points behind Martin, said a mandatory team meeting among drivers, crew chiefs and lead engineers four months ago was critical to getting him back on track.

"We're starting to see those advantages," Hamlin said. "I think we did kind of plateau out there, but it's starting to go back up there on the upswing."

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@morris.com.

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