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NASCAR Cup Martinsville II

Hamlin's Martinsville position couldn't be "more exciting"

On paper, Denny Hamlin’s path to advance to the Championship 4 may look challenging but his crew chief, Chris Gabehart, believes his driver relishes the moment.

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota Camry

A power steering failure late in last weekend’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway knocked Hamlin out of the race early and in a difficult scenario to advance to this season’s title race at Phoenix.

Entering this weekend’s final race to qualify at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Hamlin is fifth in the playoff standings and 17 points behind fourth-place Ryan Blaney.

It’s certainly not an insurmountable points deficit and a victory would automatically hand Hamlin the opportunity to race for the championship and Gabehart both as viable options.

“It would be hard to think of a position that would be more exciting, that’s for sure, and for so many reasons,” Gabehart said Thursday. “We’re below the cutline, a team that’s worthy of getting (to the Championship 4), driver has 51 wins, hasn’t won a championship, clearly deserving, tons of wins at Martinsville, always has the audience’s attention and we’re super-capable.

“You add all that together and throw it in a cauldron, it’s sure going to make for an exciting day. I think that’s great. The relevancy of that – win, lose or draw – is what anyone can hope to sign up for.

“Just to show up at a race track and be relevant as a team member at the top level is really all you can ask for and we’re certainly going to have that in spades this weekend.”

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota Camry

Photo by: David Rosenblum / NKP / Motorsport Images

Denny Hamlin, Joe Gibbs Racing, Sport Clips Haircuts Toyota Camry

From all accounts Hamlin is in an unexpected position this late in the playoffs.

He began the playoffs as one of the top seeds, has three wins, led the fourth-most laps, has the second-most top-five and third-most top-10 finishes.

And before his late-race issue at Homestead, Hamlin had finished sixth and fourth in the first two stages, respectively.

For Gabehart, the most difficult part of Hamlin’s current predicament is that it did not come about from anything his driver, or the team could control.

“I’m disappointed that we had a mechanical failure that’s put us behind. And when I say ‘we,’ it’s a very broad team,” Gabehart said. “It’s not just the No. 11, it’s not just JGR, it’s not just TRD, it’s all of us.

“We’ve had a failure that’s put us in this spot and that’s disappointing because it was an offset to the performance capability that we conceivably controlled. You can’t control ‘Hail Melons’ (Ross Chastain’s last-lap wall-riding move to reach the title race), you can’t control right-front

tires blowing, you can’t control someone blowing an engine in front of you and you get in an oil slick, and you get in the wall – you can’t control those things.

“But you can control mechanical failures, so that part is disappointing. I haven’t processed that and frankly I don’t care about it. Our job is to go to Martinsville and win and I know that’s what we’re capable of.”

The pressure is on

Winning the race with everything on the line is Hamlin’s surest path back to the Championship 4 and one Gabehart believes his driver will thrive on.

“Any great athlete would relish such a moment,” he said. “You want to be on the grandest stage when the spotlights are on and everyone is paying attention to the stage, you want them to be paying attention to you, as you should.

“That’s what it takes to be great in any sport. I think Denny definitely does relish it, and should, and hopefully we can capitalize on it.”

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